“American Dirt”: The book that chilled American publishing

January 26, 2023 • 9:45 am

This three year old novel, which you can buy from Amazon in hardback for only $9.99, is the subject of Pamela Paul’s latest op-ed in the NYT (click on the second image below to read it).  According to Paul, and judging by the news I’ve followed since American Dirt‘s publication, this book had a huge chilling effect on American publishing. It was, Paul maintains, the harbinger of the timorous and self-censoring publishing industry of modern America. But click below to read, and I’ll give a few excerpts.

Paul, as you may know, used to be the editor of the New York Times Book Review, so she knows the ins and outs of publishing, and that informs her harsh critique of how this book—written by Jeanine Cumins and published by Flatiron Press, an imprint of MacMillan—was treated by a woke mob.

Here are two lines from Wikipedia’s bio of Cummins.  See if you can guess what the fracas was about from these:

Cummins’ 2020 novel, American Dirt, tells the story of a mother and bookstore owner in Acapulco, Mexico, who attempts to escape to the United States with her son after their family is killed by a drug cartel.

and

Jeanine Cummins identifies as both white and Latina. In a December 2015 New York Times opinion piece about her cousins’ murder, she mentions her Puerto Rican grandmother but also states “I am white…and in every practical way, my family is mostly white.”

Yes, this is a set-up for an accusation of Cultural Appropriation, and that’s what brought the book down, though it ultimately was translated into 33 languages, sold three million copies, and was selected for Oprah Winfrey’s “Book Club”, which guarantees huge sales. But the social-justice mob that went after this book, ignited by a single blog post, has, for the indefinite future, chilled all of publishing. For crying out loud, some people thought I’d have trouble publishing my children’s book set in India, Mr. Das and His Fifty Cats, because I’m not Indian. And indeed, that “conflict” has been mentioned to me by at least one editor. (No, I haven’t placed the book.)

On to Paul’s take:

The story in brief as she tells it:

Three years ago this month, the novel “American Dirt” by Jeanine Cummins landed in bookstores on a tsunami of enthusiasm. “Extraordinary,” Stephen King wrote in a pre-publication blurb. “Riveting, timely, a dazzling accomplishment,” raved Julia Alvarez. “This book is not simply the great American novel; it’s the great novel of las Americas,” Sandra Cisneros proclaimed. “This is the international story of our times. Masterful.”

The book’s momentum was nonstop. Riding on starred prepublication reviews from the trades, the book, a fast-paced road novel about a Mexican bookseller and her son trying to cross the border to escape a murderous drug cartel, was named an Indie Next List Pick by independent bookstores. Then came the rapturous reviews. “A thrilling adrenaline rush — and insights into the Latin American migrant experience,” raved The Washington Post. Cummins “proves that fiction can be a vehicle for expanding our empathy,” said Time magazine. Finally, the golden ticket: Oprah selected “American Dirt” for her book club. “I was opened, I was shook up, it woke me up,” Winfrey said.

It all fell apart with stunning speed. Following a blistering online campaign against the author and others involved in the book over who gets to write what, and in response to threats of violence against both author and booksellers, Cummins’s publisher, Flatiron Books, canceled her book tour. Cummins’s motives and reputation were smeared; the novel, eviscerated. “We are saddened that a work of fiction that was well-intentioned has led to such vitriolic rancor,” Flatiron’s president said in a statement.

Looking back now, it’s clear that the “American Dirt” debacle of January 2020 was a harbinger, the moment when the publishing world lost its confidence and ceded moral authority to the worst impulses of its detractors. In the years since, publishers have become wary of what is now thought of as Another American Dirt Situation, which is to say, a book that puts its author and publishing house in the line of fire. This fear now hangs over every step of a fraught process with questions over who can write what, who should blurb  and who can edit permeating what feels like a minefield. Books that would once have been greenlit are now passed over, sensitivity readers are employed on a regular basis, self-censorship is rampant.

A creative industry that used to thrive on risk-taking now shies away from it. And it all stemmed from a single writer posting a discursive and furious takedown of “American Dirt” and its author on a minor blog. Whether out of conviction or cowardice, others quickly jumped on board and a social media rampage ensued, widening into the broader media. In the face of the outcry, the literary world largely folded.

If you want to see an unfair and nasty hit job, I suggest that you read the review of American Dirt below by writer Myriam Gurba, published on the blog Tropics of Meta (click screenshot below).  In the title below, I see Gurba labels Cummins as “pendeja,” which apparently is “a mildly vulgar insult for ‘asshole’ or ‘idiot’ in Spanish” (female form). And “bronca” in Spanish means “row” or “beef”. So the very title begins with an insult:

It’s a short review, but accuses Cummins of cultural appropriation, not having the ethnic credibility to write about Mexico, and, by producing a highly touted book, taking undue credit and quashing the achievements from other Latino authors. Here’s a bit of Gurba’s invective (“gabacha” is a pejorative Spanish word for a non-Hispanic foreigner, a female):

A self-professed gabacha, Jeanine Cummins, wrote a book that sucks. Big time.

Her obra de caca belongs to the great American tradition of doing the following:

  1. Appropriating genius works by people of color
  2. Slapping a coat of mayonesa on them to make palatable to taste buds estados-unidenses and
  3. Repackaging them for mass racially “colorblind” consumption.

Rather than look us in the eye, many gabachos prefer to look down their noses at us. Rather than face that we are their moral and intellectual equals, they happily pity us. Pity is what inspires their sweet tooth for Mexican pain, a craving many of them hide. This denial motivates their spending habits, resulting in a preference for trauma porn that wears a social justice fig leaf. To satisfy this demand, Cummins tossed together American Dirt, a “road thriller” that wears an I’m-giving-a-voice-to-the-voiceless-masses merkin.

This vicious attack, laced with Spanish slang, is what launched a thousand sensitivity readers and the mentality that makes publishers wary of putting out any books not written by someone with the proper ethnic cred. Although Cummins has Hispanic genes, a 25% DNA titer was apparently not enough to make her qualified to write about Mexico (note that lots of writers with no Hispanic heritage have previously written about Mexico).

People who liked Cummins’s book suddenly retreated (there were some exceptions, including Latino writers) and Cummins was demonized by her fellow writers. She has not been asked to blurb books by other authors, as her name and endorsement are considered toxic.  As Paul says, “if the proposal for ‘American Dirt’ landed on desks today, it wouldn’t get published.”

Here’s Paul’s example about how a Latino who defended writers’ use of “cultural appropriation” was treated:

For some aspiring writers, the mood remains pessimistic. “My take is the only take and the one everyone knows to be true but only admits in private: the literary world only accepts work that aligns with the progressive/woke point of view of rich coastal liberals,” the Latino writer Alex Perez said in an interview with Hobart magazine last fall. “This explains why everything reads and sounds the same, from major publishing houses to vanity zines with a readership of 15.” Shortly after publication of Perez’s interview, Hobart’s staff of editors quit and Perez was widely mocked on social media.

I guess Hobart’s editors saw themselves as HARMED by Perez’s interview.

This whole thing makes me ill. History is filled with great novels about men written by women (Middlemarch), about women written by men (I just finished the Beartown trilogy by Fredrik Backman, most of whose main characters are girls or women, and portrayed with great insight and sensitivity), and about people of one culture written about by those from another (just one example: Kazuo Ishiguro, born in Japan, now living in England, writes fantastic books about a variety of cultures, including robots). I know readers can think of other “exceptions” like these, for we’ve discussed them before.

It baffles me that you have to be from one gender or racial group to write well about it; it violates the very dictum that we’re all humans and share emotions and thoughts, even if our cultures differ. Nor do I buy the argument that Cummins’s writing about Mexico hurts other Latino authors and prevents them from getting attention. Especially these days, good writing is recognized by publishers. The problem is that they bridle if the good writing is about one ethnicity or gender yet produced by writers from another.

In truth, I don’t think you can make a rational argument for why the gender, race, religion, or ethnicity of an author should be ANY factor in judging their writing. Yes, their backgrounds can liven or add worthwhile nuances to a book, but it doesn’t give them a monopoly on describing their culture. In the end, it looks to me that people like Gurba are making a power grab on art, claiming that, because of their DNA, only they have the ability to write meaningfully about their own country or culture.

It’s nuts. But at least Paul, whose writing I like very much (subscribe to her column), ends on somewhat of a high note. For Cummins, despite being demonized and attacked, and despite having inadvertently turned publishing into an orgy of ethnic introspection, wrote a book that was an international bestseller:

History has shown that no matter how much critics, politicians and activists may try, you cannot prevent people from enjoying a novel. This is something the book world, faced with ongoing threats of book banning, should know better than anyone else.

“We can be appalled that people are saying, ‘You can’t teach those books. You can’t have Jacqueline Woodson in a school library.’ But you can’t stand up for Jeanine Cummins?” Ann Patchett said. “It just goes both ways. People who are not reading the book themselves are telling us what we can and cannot read? Maybe they’re not pulling a book from a classroom, but they’re still shaming people so heavily. The whole thing makes me angry, and it breaks my heart.”

Much remains broken in its wake. Jeanine Cummins may have made money, but at a great emotional, social and reputational cost. She wrote a book filled with empathy. The literary world showed her none.

Such is the work of the Authoritarian Left.

Florida teachers told to remove books from classrooms for ideological vetting lest they commit a felony

January 24, 2023 • 12:15 pm

Several readers sent me links to this news from Florida about on one county’s book-vetting initiative, designed to remove books from the classroom if they could corrupt students, turning them into Lefists or, god forbid, “grooming” them. But all schools in Florida, as per a new law, will eventually be experiencing this tsouris.

First, demarcated by the red dots, is Manatee County on Florida’s west coast. It’s not irrelevant to this story that Republican Ron DeSantis, who passed the “Stop WOKE Act” banning the teaching of CRT in Florida’s pubic schools, is the governor. (Though I suppose I could be described as “anti-woke,” I do not favor banning the teaching of CRT and certainly oppose this kind of censoring of schoolbooks.)

You can click on either story below. The first is from the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, and the second, which has more information, is from Judd Legum’s Popular Information website.  I’ll cite quotes as being from either SHT or PI.

From Popular Information by Judd Legum:

What happened here? To comply with a new Florida law, the Manatee County school district told all school principals in the county, including those heading both public and publicly-funded charter schools, that they couldn’t have any books in their classrooms that had not been approved by a “censor certified media specialist”.  Some of the books have already been approved by the schools’ libraries, but there may be other “dangerous” books in the classroom libraries. To have any book in the classroom, it has to be approved.

PI gives the criteria for approval (my bolding):

In Florida, school librarians are called “media specialists” and hold media specialist certificates. A rule passed by the Florida Department of Education last week states that a “library media center” includes any books made available to students, including in classrooms. This means that classroom libraries that are curated by teachers, not librarians, are now illegal.

The law requires that all library books selected be:

1. Free of pornography and material prohibited under s. 847.012.

2. Suited to student needs and their ability to comprehend the material presented.

3. Appropriate for the grade level and age group for which the materials are used or made available

Chapman says that school principals in Manatee County were told Wednesday that any staff member violating these rules by providing materials “harmful to minors” could be prosecuted for “a felony of the third degree.” Therefore, teachers must make their classroom libraries inaccessible to students until they can establish that each book has been approved by a librarian. 

Thus the teachers have to check every book in their classroom library to see if it’s already in the district catalogue of books that don’t purvey WRONGTHINK. That means that teachers have to go through each book to do this cross-checking. If the book is not on the already-approved list, it has to be individually checked out and approved by a censor media specialist.

Note that all three categories are subjective. Does pornography rule out The Catcher in the Rye? Who can tell students that they can’t read a book because they can’t “comprehend it” or because it’s not “appropriate for them”?

Granted, we don’t want classrooms full of Hustler magazines, but the criteria above, being almost completely subjective, demand that someone be appointed to judge the appropriateness of books for kids.  And the results will depend on the censor, of course. Would you want a censor for your kids’ books? If so, who you want, and what criteria should they use? Remember, public schools go up to twelfth grade in America, with the students being 18 years old. That’s old enough to handle almost everything. For crying out loud, I was reading all of this stuff at that age.

If someone’s going to decide, I’d prefer to leave it to each classroom teacher, for he or she knows their students and what they need.

It’s going to be a big job. Below we get an idea of who’s being the censor (from PI; my bolding):

Librarians in Manatee County are now expected to review thousands of books in classroom libraries to ensure compliance with the new law. Manatee County has 64 public schools and 3,000 teachers, many of whom maintain classroom libraries. Chapman said that every school in Manatee County has a media specialist but that the process could take a while because it is “one person” and “they are human.” Any book approved for K-5 students must also be included on a publicly available list.

Similar policies will be implemented in schools across Florida. Some Florida schools do not have a media specialist, making the process even more cumbersome.

That review must also be consistent with a complex training, which was heavily influenced by right-wing groups like Moms For Liberty and approved by the Florida Department of Education just last week. Any mistake by a librarian or others could result in criminal prosecution. This process must be repeated for any book brought into the school on an ongoing basis. But librarians and teachers are not being provided with any additional compensation for the extra work.

The teachers aren’t on board with this, of course. Here’s a photo of one classroom library that a teacher just covered up with construction paper rather than have every book vetted. Free the books!

Note that, according to the tweet below, the posters were made by the students, not by the teachers:

Here’s another classroom in a high school:

And a few statements from teachers:

From the SHT:

Jean Faulk, a history and journalism teacher at Bayshore High, had to remove books on democracy and writings from John Adams because they weren’t vetted in the district’s library system. Her bookshelves are now only lined with reference books, she said.

“This is totally a political move by the governor,” Faulk said. “It has nothing to do with the students.”

She said her school’s administration sent out a directive to teachers asking them to put away or cover up all books in classroom libraries. Faulk said the books from her classroom libraries would now go to other local libraries or Goodwill.

From PI, a future felon speaks:

One high school teacher in Manatee County told Popular Information that they would not comply with the new policy. The teacher has spent the year carefully curating books donated by parents or sourced from their personal collection. “I’m not taking any books out of my room,” the teacher said. “I absolutely refuse.” The teacher spoke on the condition of anonymity, fearing that speaking out about the policy could put their job at risk.

and a book libertarian speaks:

Stephana Ferrell, a co-founder of the Florida Freedom to Read Project, said the new policy followed “a pattern of fear-based decisions that prioritize staying in good favor with the Governor over doing the right thing for our students.” Ferrell said she blamed “the Florida Board of Education that passed this rule change last Wednesday without an ounce of consideration for its impact.” Now, “thousands of students are without classroom access to fun and engaging literature.”

Ironically, Manatee County is making thousands of books inaccessible to students just in time to celebrate “Literacy Week” in Florida, which runs from January 23 to 27. Only about 50% of students in Manatee County are reading at grade level.

This is a good argument for freedom of speech. For now we see what happens when right-wing governments have the right to censor, and it’s not pretty.

What’s the alternative, then? Do we allow every book in the classroom? Clearly that wouldn’t be either appropriate or practical. But I trust these decisions to be made by teachers rather than ideologues like DeSantis. And books should get the benefit of the doubt.

One more teacher tweet from PI:

h/t: Ken

Publisher’s promotion: 50% off audiobook of “Faith Versus Fact”

January 12, 2023 • 9:45 am

If you want to hear almost 12 hours of argument that science and religion are incompatible, and at a very low price, the http://www.audiobooks site is selling the audiobook of my Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible for half price until January 27. You can go to the site below to buy one copy, or join a recurring-shipment club and get two free books. This is a bit less than the paperback itself goes for on Amazon. Big fun! It’s just $8.50—you can’t beat that with a stick:

I’m not sure if there’s a shipping fee, as I’m not buying any and haven’t gone through the purchase process (I have many copies), but there are no taxes.  I am Professor Ceiling Cat (Emeritus), and I endorse this act of self-promotion.

Are you a racist if you like big butts?

January 8, 2023 • 1:15 pm

How can you not like Kat Rosenfield when she’s named “Kat,” is Jewish, and has the ability to write a trenchant but also funny review of a book on how white people are not allowed to either like big butts or (if a woman) have one, for it’s a form of racist cultural appropriation. Twerking is out too.

The book under consideration is called Butts: A Backstory, and you can click on the cover to go to the Amazon link (yes, the title and graphics are clever):

 

You can read Kat’s Unherd review by clicking on the screenshot:

Kat gives the book a mixed review. The bit about the documented racialization of oversized derrieres, particularly in the 18th and 19th century, is pretty horrifying, especially the story of the South African black woman Sarah Baartman, who was exhibited as an inferior specimen of human for her rear pulchritude. But if big butts were racially denigrated then, author Heather Radke says that they’re welcome now among some white people, and gives examples like Kim Kardashian, Jennifer Lopez, and so on. “Twerking,” too, has been taken up by whites. And it’s the white appropriation of the butt fetish that is, well, problematic:

Rosenfield:

To be fair, it surely is not Radke’s intention to inculcate racial anxiety in her reader: Butts feels like a passion project, deeply researched and fun to read, offering a deep dive into the history and culture of the human rear end, from the Venus Callipyge (from whose name the word “callipygian” is derived) to Buns of Steel to Sir Mix-A-Lot’s seminal rap celebrating all things gluteal. It is a topic ripe for well-rounded analysis, so to speak. But having been written in the very particular milieu of 2020s America, Butts unfortunately falls victim to the contemporary vogue for viewing all matters of culture through a racial lens. The result is a work that not only flattens the butt, figuratively, but makes the book feel ultimately less like an anthropological study and more like an entry into the crowded genre of works which serve to stoke the white liberal guilt of the NPR tote bag set.

At this point I was starting to fall in love with Rosenfield, but she kept on stoking the ardor with her insistent anti-wokeness:

The concept of cultural appropriation has always struck me as both fundamentally misguided and historically illiterate, arising from a studied incuriosity about both the inherent contagiousness of culture and the mimetic nature of human beings. But when it comes to the remixing of thing such as textiles, hairdos or fashion trends across cultures, the appropriation complaints seem at least understandable, if not persuasive: there’s a conscious element there, a choice to take what looked interesting on someone else and adorn your own body in the same way. Here, though, the appropriated item is literally a body part — the size and shape of which we rather notoriously have no control over. And yet Radke employs more or less the same argument to stigmatise the appropriation of butts as is often made about dreadlocks or bindis.

The book is insistent on this front: butts are a black thing, and liking them is a black male thing, and the appreciation of butts by non-black folks represents a moral error: cultural theft or stolen valour or some potent mix of the two. Among the scholars and experts quoted by Radke on this front is one who asserts that the contemporary appreciation of butts by the wider male population is “coming from Black male desire. Straight-up, point-blank. It’s only through Black males and their gaze that white men are starting to take notice”. To paraphrase a popular meme: “Fellas, is it racist to like butts?”

But if it’s racist to like big butts, why are so many white people either getting butt implants or taking pride in their derrieres? It seems that Radtke is conflating racism with cultural approprition. Both are “moral errors”, but really it’s only the first.

First of all, buttophilia is not a new thing; there have always been a subset of men who like an ample bottom, and there’s nothing wrong with that, for there’s a subset of men who favor any given female body part. (Rosenfield notes the theory that the bustles of earlier times were designed as a superliminal stimulus to appeal to those who favor large rears.)

But there’s also no doubt that there’s recent cultural appropriation, as in white rapper Iggy Azalea’s astounding increase in bum girth, one suspects through surgery. If a love of big butts is racist, there’s an awful lot of white people who favor them!  Again, things that are really considered racist are not culturally appropriated, no matter who appropriates them.  I suppose that Radtke’s thesis, although she mentions cultural appropriation, is that women who strive for big butts are, à la Rachel Dolezal, trying to be black, and that is somehow a form of racism. But that doesn’t explain why some white men like big butts.

It’s all a mystery, but Rosenfield still writes well about it:

By the time Butts comes around to analysing the contemporary derriere discourse, its conclusions are all but foregone: the political is not just personal, but anatomical. The book calls multiple women, including Jennifer Lopez, Kim Kardashian, and Miley Cyrus, to account for their appropriation of butts, which are understood to belong metaphorically if not literally to black women. The most scathing critique is directed at the then-21-year-old Cyrus, whose twerking at the VMAs is described as “adopting and exploiting a form of dance that had long been popular in poor and working-class Black communities and simultaneously playing into the stereotype of the hypersexual Black woman”. The mainstreaming of butts as a thing to be admired, then, is the ultimate act of Columbusing: “The butt had always been there, even if white people failed to notice for decades.”

There is also the curious wrinkle in Radke’s section on the history of twerking, which credits its popularisation to a male drag queen named Big Freedia. The implicit suggestion is that this movement style is less offensive when performed by a man dressed as a woman than by a white woman with a tiny butt.

On the other hand, now that the fad is “healthy at any size,” how can there be an ideological stigma against large bottoms?

. . . Ironically, the author of this book is herself a white woman with a large backside, a fact of which she periodically reminds the reader. And yet, Butts thoroughly subsumes its subject matter into the cultural appropriation discourse in a way that implicitly impugns all the non-black women who look — at least from behind — a hell of a lot more like Nicki Minaj than Kate Moss, women who perhaps hoped that their own big butts might be counted among those Sir Mix-a-Lot cannot lie about liking. It is worth noting, too, that the women hung out to dry by this argument are the same ones who other progressive identitarian rhetoric almost invariably fails to account for: the more it indulges in the archetype of the assless willowy white woman, the more Butts excludes from its imagination the poor and working class — whose butts, along with everything else, tend to be bigger. It fails to account, too, for those from ethnic backgrounds where a bigger butt — or, as one of my Jewish great-grandmothers might have said, a nice round tuchus — is the norm.

And the last paragraph is great:

All told, Butts offers an interesting if somewhat monomaniacal look back at the cultural history of the derriere. But as for how to view our backsides moving forward — especially if you happen to be a woman in possession of a big butt yourself — the book finds itself at something of a loss. Those in search of body positivity will not find it here; Radke is firm on this front, that white women who embrace their big butts are guilty of what Toni Morrison called “playing in the dark”, dabbling thoughtlessly with a culture, an aesthetic, a physique that doesn’t really belong to them. The best these women can hope for, it seems, is to look at their bodies the way Radke does in the final pages, with a sort of resigned acceptance: her butt, she says, is “just a fact”. On the one hand, this is better than explicitly instructing women to feel ashamed of their bodies (although implicitly, one gets the sense that shame is preferable to the confident, twerking alternative). But after some 200 pages of narrative about the political, sexual, cultural, historical baggage with which the butt is laden, it feels a bit empty, a bit like a cop-out. It could even be said — not by me, but by someone — that Butts has a hole in it.* [see below]

In the end, it seems as if Radke’s message is that it’s not really racist to like big butts if you’re white, but you better not get one or engage in twerking.  That’s reserved for ethnicities whose women naturally have large rumps; in other words, whites of a callipygean bent are engaging in cultural appreciation, and that’s wrong. But I’ve never seen a form of cultural appropriation that I’d criticize, and this one is no exception. Let a thousand butts twerk!

The evolution of Iggy Azelea’s rear, from an article in (of course) The Sun:

Rosenfield’s last line reminds me of a semi-salacious joke that my father used to tell me when, as a young lad, I was tucked in (he always had a witticism at bedtime):

“Jerry, there’s a good movie on. The ad says “Mein Tuchus in two parts. Come tomorrow and see the whole!”

h/t: Luana

A short book review and two short movie reviews

January 1, 2023 • 1:00 pm

Since I wasn’t able to be in Poland over the holidays, I read books and watched movies. One book I recommend highly is Beartown, loaned to me by a friend (image below links to Amazon site). It’s the first book of a trilogy by Swedish writer Fredrick Backman, and this one’s about the way high-school hockey takes over a small Swedish town and then tears it apart. The language is spare but lovely, especially when the author becomes more philosophical near the end. It starts off with a simple narrative about the local hockey team, but then becomes very dark very fast. I won’t give away the pivotal event of the story.

It’s engrossing, was a best-seller in Sweden and then in the U.S. The theme is about community and loyalty, and I’m considering continuing on to the last two novels of the trilogy. I’d recommend this one highly. It’s not a world classic or a masterpiece, but it’s an absorbing and disturbing read. (Disturbing books are the best books.)

I didn’t go to the movies much last year because of the pandemic, and the University movie series, Doc Films, had a pared-down schedule. I’m catching up online now, and here are two that I watched and liked. I found them because they both appeared on at least two “best films of 2022” lists.

I watched “The Worst Person in the World” because, though I hadn’t heard of it, it was named as the best movie of the year on Esquire’s tally of the 35 best. Here’s what the authors have to say:

Granted, it was only February when I saw this, but director Joaquim Trier’s wonderfully humane Norwegian import and nominee for last year’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar is still, hands-down, the best film of 2022. I’ve blown hot and cold on some of Trier’s earlier films, but this one is an instant classic in large part due to Renate Reinsve’s luminous performance as Julie—an aimless Oslo woman on the cusp of 30 who’s trying to figure herself out in ways that are so funny, sad, and realistically messy that it feels like we’re spying on someone we’ve known for years. The title might give you the impression that Julie is trouble, leaving chaos and broken hearts in her wake. But the title actually isn’t about her. Plus, she’s far more complex than that implies anyway. Told in 12 chapters plus a prologue and an epilogue, The Worst Person in the World is anything but neat and orderly. Like life, it’s complicated, unpredictable, bittersweet and indecisive. It’s also brimming with so much empathy for Trier’s female lead that you can’t help but fall in love with her even when you know she’s making mistakes. After all, who are we to judge? Trier tracks Julie’s relationships with men, but it’s far more interested in getting inside of her head and figuring out what makes her tick, which is a rarity in Hollywood films. We’ll see if anything in the coming months can match Trier and Reinsve’s masterpiece, but they’ve set an incredibly high bar.

That pretty much says it all, but I wouldn’t rate this as the best even among the few movies I’ve seen this year (that would be “Tár”). The main character ,Julie (played by Renate Reinsve), turns in a creditable performance, but I don’t understand all the critics’ hulabaloo. (It was rated 96 by the critics and 86 by the audience on Rotten Tomatoes.) Julie is aimless, flaky, and lovable, and makes a mess of her life, especially when dealing with men, but that aimlessness itself, and the attendant sadness and tragedy, don’t carry the picture.  To my mind, Julie wasn’t sufficiently developed to be absorbing, and the reviewers seemed to conflate flakiness and confusion with complexity and depth. I would rate this as a good+ movie, but the best? No way. But watch it for yourself. Here’s a trailer:

Kimi“, directed by Steven Soderbergh, was better, and though also not a classic is clever, absorbing, and a crime thriller to boot. Kimi is an AI device like Alexa, made by a company that employs the protagonist Angela, played very well by Zoë Kravitz. Angela is an extremely introverted and agoraphobic women who almost never leaves her flat, but her job can be done from home: she listens in on requests to Kimi to figure out how to improve the AI device. By accident she hears a crime being committed, and it’s her attempts to report the crime, and the opposition she faces from a criminal conspiracy, that make for an edge-of-your-seat experience.  I’m surprised I liked this better than the one above, as I usually like long, slow, movies with character development and not that much action.  This movie gets a “very good” from me and I recommend that you see it if you get the chance.

I also watched a movie that was on many lists as a “best of 2022”: “Everything Everywhere All At Once“, starring Michelle Yeoh, but I found it tricked out and tedious, and stopped watching 45 minutes in. (It’s about the multiverse.) Many of my friends liked it, so I’ll just say, “Go see it and report in”, or report below if you’ve already seen it.

Now it’s your turn: which movies did you like best that were made last year?

The Atlantic recommends six long books

December 28, 2022 • 12:15 pm

If I like a book, I want it to be LONG. A thousand pages means nothing to me if the book is a good one. On the other hand, I know that many people beef about long books—an attitude I fail to understand. If the book is absorbing, or a good story, then why would you want it to end so soon? It’s like A. J. Liebling’s explanation of why he was a gourmand and not a gourmet: if you like food, you will like a LOT of food.

Well, I know I’m in the minority here, but I just found an article in The Atlantic that recommends LONG books (I also just remembered that I’ve had an online subscription to the magazine for five months, and had forgotten about it!)

Click to read (I don’t know if it’s paywalled):

It turns out that I’ve already read four of these. Guess which of the six I haven’t read?

Here’s Masad’s list, but first the intro:

Literature should not be something we approach out of a sense of duty. But many lengthy, complex, and well-known books really are that good. Like taking a long hike or following a tricky recipe, engaging with writing that challenges you can be deeply satisfying. Each of the books below is demanding in its own way, and reading or rereading them can be a fascinating, beautiful, and rewarding experience.

The Tale of Genji, by Murasaki Shikibu (translated by Dennis Washburn)

Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville

Vanity Fair, by William Makepeace Thackeray

Middlemarch, by George Eliot

Almanac of the Dead, by Leslie Marmon Silko

Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace

Of the four I’ve read (and this gives one away), I found Middlemarch the best, but all the ones I’ve read are good.

But why do they leave out Ulysses, or Anna Karenina, or The Brothers Karamazov? (Actually Masad did read and enjoy Joyce’s novel, though he said he initially  read it out of a sense of duty.

Here’s a book (or rather, a bunch of books) that I tried to read out of a sense of duty, and couldn’t get through even the first volume: Remembrance of Things Past.  It was simply too fricking turgid!  Of course that means I can never enter a “Summarize Proust” contest (first five minutes of the Python episode below):

Two (actually five) excellent books to consider

December 15, 2022 • 12:30 pm

I’m working on a long writing piece, so have had to curtail posts here for a few days. We’ll be back to normal tomorrow.

I don’t think I’ve mentioned this book before, but it’s in a tie for second place among all the fiction I’ve read this year. I’ve reviewed the other two books before: All the Light We Cannot See, a 2014 book by Anthony Doerr that’s the best new fiction I’ve read in several years (my review here), and the book that ties with the one below as second-best, Hamnet, a 2020 novel by Maggie O’Farrell(my review here).  Either of those, or Horse, below, will serve you very well. But if you can read only one book, it must be the one by Doerr, which won the fiction Pulitzer Prize in 2020.

Horse, which came out this spring, is a terrific work of the imagination, weaving past and present around a single famous (and real) eighteenth-century racehorse, Lexington,. The theme is anti-black bigotry, which in the “past” section involves Jarret, the enslaved black trainer of the racehorse, and in the “present” section involves a woman zoologist, Jess, and her black boyfriend Theo. Theo finds a discarded painting of the horse in a Washington, D.C. trash heap, figures out who it is, and uses it for his Ph.D. thesis in art history. That’s how he meets Jess, who in fact is the keeper of the horse’s bones at the Smithsonian, but didn’t know that those bones belonged to Lexington.

And so the past interweaves with the present in short, compelling chapters, with nearly all the fictional characters based on real ones. The story is mesmerizing, though it swerves a bit into wokeness and preachiness at the end; and there’s a tragedy that I won’t reveal. The horse, by the way, is an almost humanlike character in the book, since his character is described in great and winsome detail.

You don’t have to be a fan of horses to love this book, and if you want to read more, go to the laudatory review at the Washington Post.  Click on the screenshot below to go to the Amazon site.

Below is the real Lexington—one of the few existing photos. As Wikipedia notes, “Lexington (March 17, 1850 – July 1, 1875) was a United States Thoroughbred race horse who won six of his seven race starts. Perhaps his greatest fame, however, came as the most successful sire of the second half of the nineteenth century; he was the leading sire in North America 16 times, and broodmare sire of many notable racehorses.”

The second book is not in my top three, but is still an excellent read:  Empire of Pain. by Patrick Radde Keefe. This book came out in April of last year, and was, like Horse, recommended to me by my editor at Viking/Penguin, who has impeccable taste in books. It is the story of the Sackler family and the trio of Jewish brothers who founded Purdue Pharma, the company that devised and manufactured OxyContin, a synthetic opioid that, as you may know, got gazillions of Americans addicted to painkillers. Many of them died. The Sacklers, who made billions on this one pill, were also philanthropists who gave millions to museums and universities, always insisting that the family name go on the donated wing or building. They—and especially the eldest brother Arthur—were hard driving and arrogant, but also somewhat polymathic (Arthur, for instance, became an autodidactic expert in Chinese art and built up a huge collection).

The family advertised OxyContin in ways that they knew would get people addicted, and ignored the damage caused by their drug. They were able to fight off lawsuits for years, but finally took a hit (not a big hit given the family’s billions) and declared bankruptcy. But all the Sacklers wound up fine, living it up in mansions around the world. The message: is was no justice.

An immense amount of reportage went into this book. It reminds me a lot of Bad Blood, the fantastic book by reporter John Carreyrou that exposed the duplicity of Elizabeth Holmes and her partner Sunny Balwani, the pair who ran the bogus startup Theranos. (Both will be going to jail for a long time, partly because Carreyrou’s book revealed their perfidy.)  Bad Blood began with Carreyrou’s reporting in the Wall Street Journal, which eventually became a mesmerizing piece of nonfiction (read it!). Empire of Pain started with an article as well: a piece by Keefe in the 2017 New Yorker. It’s extremely well written, and will introduce you to a family of which you haven’t heard, and to the enormous damage caused by their greed.

Click the screenshot to go to the Amazon site.

Now, as General Patton said, “You know what to do.”  Let us know what you’re reading, how you like it, and what books you’d especially recommend.

Julian Baggini reviews a new book on agency that ignores the issue of free will

December 7, 2022 • 1:00 pm

Philosopher and author Julian Baggini, a nonbeliever who wrote the Very Short Introduction to Atheism for Oxford University Press (and about 20 other books), has a nice review in the Wall Street Journal of a new book on cognitive and behavioral autonomy, with a thesis that touches on issues of free will. The book is Freely Determined: What the New Psychology of Self Teaches Us About How to Live, by Kennon M. Sheldon.

You can read Baggini’s review by clicking on the screenshots below; if it’s paywalled, I’ll quote enough to give you the tenor of the piece:

Sheldon himself is a professor of psychological sciences at the University of Missouri in Columbia, and uses the book to push his own pet theory: Self-Determination Theory (SDT). SDT has been around for about fifty years, and is about people’s motivations and self-determination. Sheldon asserts that your wellbeing is higher if you think you are the agent who produces your own actions, and, apparently, that you have the ability to freely will your actions, or to will one of several possible actions. The latter, of course, bears on contracausal (“I-could-have-done-otherwise”) free will.

As Baggini notes:

Mr. Sheldon’s interest in free will is rooted in his work in Self-Determination Theory, which he calls “the world’s most comprehensive and best-supported theory of human motivation.” A core tenet of SDT is that “people need to experience themselves as the causal source and origin of their own behavior rather than feeling controlled and determined by external forces.” When people feel autonomous, they are more content and successful. When they feel they have no control, they become morally cynical. After all, if we’re not in control of what we do, how can we be blamed for wrongdoing?

Most of Mr. Sheldon’s 10 chapters constitute a compelling and clear introduction to what SDT teaches us about nurturing a sense of autonomy. The theory gives us a rich and powerful understanding of motivation—how to harness it and avoid undermining it. Most notably, the theory points to the importance of intrinsic motivation: the desire to do something for its own reward, not for any instrumental benefit.

And indeed, Sheldon may be right: we may do best if we feel that we are deciding our own actions rather than being compelled by the desires of other people or, ultimately, by forces beyond our control.  If you’re a hard determinist, like me (and I think Baggini, though I’m not sure), you realize that we aren’t really able to decide one course of action versus another: that is decided for us by the laws of physics. Still, I have no beef with the idea that we feel better entertaining the notion that we can indeed choose one course rather than another. Indeed, natural selection may have favored, for various reasons that lack the will, time, and space to discuss, the feeling that we are making free choices. But what makes us feel good isn’t necessarily true; we can have our feeling of agency and feel better for it, even if that agency is illusory.

The problem, which Baggini homes in on, is that author Sheldon seems to think that SDT and contracausal free will are incompatible. That is, if you feel that you have agency, then it must be true that you have agency:

When it comes to the metaphysical realm, Mr. Sheldon’s mistake is to think that SDT and the philosophical denial of ultimate free will are incompatible. That is only true of the most popular, if simplistic, threat to his model of human freedom: the extreme reductionism claiming that reality can be completely described in the language of physics; that consciousness is just the humming of the neural machine; and that everything is strictly predetermined.

Mr. Sheldon sees off this crude challenge with skill and clarity. A key to his argument is the idea of a “grand hierarchy of human reality”—a scale of human understanding and its modes, from micro to macro. Physics sits at the bottom, with the sciences of chemistry, microbiology and neuroscience stacked above it. Every time you ascend a level you encounter reality at a different order of organization. As Mr. Sheldon writes: “There is a kind of ‘functional autonomy’ at each new level, which builds upon what is given below. This means that each new level affects the world in a way that is partially independent of the levels below.”

Ascend the hierarchy further and you get to the social sciences: varieties of psychology, sociology and anthropology. (He might have added philosophy.) You can’t understand human societies, he observes, without reference to their values, or human actions without desires and intentions. The reductionist assumption—that thoughts and feelings are causally inert—is invalid.

The issue is that evoking “reductionism” doesn’t touch the issue of libertarian free will. A “grand hierarchy” must still show that each level is compatible with the one below it, even if it couldn’t be predicted from the one below it. And at the bottom sit the hard laws of physics, which ramify upwards to produce psychology and anthropology. Just because you can’t predict how human societies work from the laws of physics doesn’t mean that those societies aren’t the ineluctable results of the laws of physics. It’s a fundamental error to deny reductionism just because we can’t predict how phenomena ramify. What would overturn reductionism is the observation that new phenomena arise at higher levels that aren’t COMPATIBLE with what’s going on at lower levels. And to a determinist, this just doesn’t happen.

And so, argues Baggini—and I agree—this palaver about the benefits of feeling empowered to decide (which is a real feeling and may be beneficial), combined with the denial of reductionism, leads Baggini not just to reject libertarian free will, but to ignore it completely.

This is all persuasive, but it leaves the deeper metaphysical problem of free will untouched. Human beings may make choices that are not predictable or even completely determined. [JAC: I presume that Baggini’s referring here to a fundamental indeterminacy, as far as we know, of quantum mechanics.] The hard question of free will is whether, at the time of making a choice, we could have done otherwise (leaving aside randomness or chance). The most popular position in philosophy today is compatibilism: It says that, although we can’t do other than what we do, we still have a valuable form of free will that allows us to maintain ideas of autonomy, control, responsibility and blame. In short, we may not be as free as we think we are, but we are free enough.

Note that Baggini explains that compatibilism accepts the fact that we lack contracausal free will. What is “compatible” in compatibilism is the absence of “true” (what I call “contracausal”) free will with another definition of free will that’s confected by whichever philosopher is pushing compatibilism. But Sheldon doesn’t even mention compatibilism, though he alludes to a form of it—a form that, to me, seems to deny contracausal free will entirely:

In “Freely Determined,” compatibilism doesn’t get a single mention. Instead Mr. Sheldon leans heavily on a recent book by Christian List (“Why Free Will Is Real”) in which it is argued that free will requires three capacities: considering the possibilities for action; forming an intention; and acting on a chosen possibility. But whereas Mr. List delves into the complexities behind these seemingly simple check-boxes, Mr. Sheldon merely helps himself to the comforting conclusion that, since human beings possess all three capacities, we are free.

In the end, Baggini recommends the book but criticizes the author for eluding a truth that really bothers people: our inability to decide or behave other than the way we do:

Fortunately, what Mr. Sheldon has to tell us about motivation and human action remains valuable, however we resolve the philosophical problem of free will. Readers will get a lot out of his book—as long as they recognize that it doesn’t so much solve the problem as deftly swerve around it.

Ironically, what first got me thinking about determism, and ultimately rejecting contracausal free will, was a paper by biochemist Anthony Cashmore in PNAS, written as a freebie when he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences. I think it’s well worth reading, and it has the word “swerve” in it, referring to the Lucretian swerve. Read “The Lucretian swerve: The biological basis of human behavior and the criminal justice system.” (It’s free online.)

Michelle Obama’s on tour

December 6, 2022 • 4:39 pm

I got my teeth cleaned this afternoon, which shot half the day. The good news is that my scrupulous gum and dental hygiene have given me perfect checkups for several years. (I floss daily, brush my teeth after every meal, and use a Sonicare toothbrush and a Water-Pik.)

But I digress. Walking to the dentist’s downtown, I passed this:

Yep, Michelle Obama is on her “The Light We Carry” tour, supporting her book that just came out: The Light We Carry: Overcoming in Uncertain TimesI think she’s going to talk about it and perhaps answer some questions:

The skinny:

In this new book, Mrs. Obama offers readers a series of fresh stories and insightful reflections on change, challenge, and power, including her belief that when we light up for others, we can illuminate the richness and potential of the world around us, discovering deeper truths and new pathways for progress. Drawing from her experiences as a mother, daughter, spouse, friend, and First Lady, she shares the habits and principles she has developed to successfully adapt to change and overcome various obstacles—the earned wisdom that helps her continue to “become.” She details her most valuable practices, like “starting kind,” “going high,” and assembling a “kitchen table” of trusted friends and mentors. With trademark humor, candor, and compassion, she also explores issues connected to race, gender, and visibility, encouraging readers to work through fear, find strength in community, and live with boldness.

I’m sure she’ll be eloquent and funny, but I’ll take a pass. “Going high”?

One thing I know for sure: she and her husband have a huge pile of dosh.  Did any President in modern times not become rich when they left office? Maybe Jimmy Carter?

Sabine Hossenfelder on consciousness and the collapse of the wave function

November 20, 2022 • 12:10 pm

In the video below, physicist Sabine Hossenfelder deals with the deeply weird nature of quantum mechanics—in this case, can human consciousness cause collapse of the wave function? This is connected with famous experiments like the “double slit experiment” or the Gedankenexperiment of Schrödinger’s cat—scenarios where the apparent outcome of a study depends on whether someone is looking at it and measuring the outcomes. For example, if you let photons from a single source go through two slits in a plate, and don’t observe which slit they go through, they form an interference pattern on a screen on the other side, implying that light is a wave, and is going through both slits at once. But if you put a detector at each slit, observing which one each photon goes through, you now get a mirror of the two-slit pattern on the screen: the photons go through one slit and not both. The results, then,  differ depending on whether you’re looking and measuring. As Wikipedia notes:

The double-slit experiment (and its variations) has become a classic for its clarity in expressing the central puzzles of quantum mechanics. Because it demonstrates the fundamental limitation of the ability of the observer to predict experimental results, Richard Feynman called it “a phenomenon which is impossible […] to explain in any classical way, and which has in it the heart of quantum mechanics. In reality, it contains the only mystery [of quantum mechanics].

This kind of result has deeply troubled physicists for years, for it implies that our own brains somehow influence quantum physics and the behavior of particles. How can that be? As Sabine says, if consciousness can do that, it must have physical effects on reality, which doesn’t seem tenable. (The idea also leads to all kinds of quantum hokum à la Deepakity.) And would the consciousness of a worm suffice? How can the nature of reality depend on whether someone is looking at it? Well, there are many solutions proposed, including the many-worlds hypothesis, but I’ll let you read the book at the bottom to get the full story.

This all derives from a persisting dichotomy in quantum mechanics: is it telling us something about what is real, or only giving us a mathematical analysis that, while it works, doesn’t give us the ability to visualize what’s really going on on the particle level?  Bohr and his famous “Copenhagen interpretation” of QM espoused the latter: the “shut up and calculate” version. Einstein and others believed that there is a fundamental reality to nature that must be graspable by our brains, and is only approximated by quantum mechanics.  Or so I interpret.

At any rate, I found Sabine’s discussion somewhat confusing, mainly because you have to know a bit about quantum mechanics and its history before you can understand her presentation. I did, however, like her dismissal at the end of the video of the Penrose/Hamaroff idea that consciousness doesn’t cause the collapse of the wave function, but rather the opposite: the collapse of the wave function, working on “microtubules”in the brain, is itself responsible for consciousness.  Right now there’s no evidence for this, or for the panpsychism that Hossenfelder also dismisses.

 

I just finished this book, which is really all about the observer effect and whether quantum mechanics tells us something about what is real in the world. It’s not too hard going, and is a fascinating story going from Heisenberg up to modern disputes about the many-worlds hypothesis. And it’s heavily historical, showing how the charisma and intelligence of Neils Bohr all but shut down the debate for many decades. Of all the books on quantum mechanics that I’ve read, this is the clearest, and the one that best describes the disputes over what QM means. I recommend it highly. Click on the screenshot to go to the Amazon site.

(h/t Steve)