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The April List

with 4 comments

I know, I know.  I’m a little late here.   But May 1st was a Wednesday, my biggest teaching day, and I’m trying to finish a new Gregor.

That being said, I’ve got the list, and the notes.

I do want to point out one thing–there is a novel on this month’s list, and I intend to go into my feelings about it at length.

If you don’t want spoilers, stop reading when the title comes up.

I hate that thing where people write SPOILERS in capital letters and make that sort of fuss about it, so you are forewarned.

The list is this:

24) Eric Alterman.  Why We’re Liberals:  A Handbook for Restoring America’s Most Important Ideals.

25) David Hackett Fischer.  Albion’s Seed: Four  British Folkways in America.

26) Corliss Lamont.  The Philosophy of Humanism.

27) Margaret Mitchell.  Gone With The Wind.

          e) Avram Davidson.  “The Necessity of His Condition.”

And, the notes:

Alterman is a columnist for The Nation, and earlier known for a book called What Liberal Media?

This was actually a reread for me.  One of my sons bought it for me when it first came out in hardcover, around my birthday a few years ago.

The format, which is a kind of question and answer thing, is really helpful. 

And the book is very good at getting across positions for a certain brand of liberalism, and on that basis I would definitely recommend it.

What’s more, there’s a lot less of the casual snobbery you get in many of these things, and the man is remarkably clear and admirably lacking in arrogance in most of what he writes.

Unfortunately, he does tend to go for the straw man in all the predictable places, and in some–discussing the work of Charles Murray, for instance–he leaves the realm of valid argument altogether.

On matters of liberal argument,  he’s good.  On matters of liberal faith–well, he’s responding from faith.  It shows.

Especially interesting is his attempt to connect modern-day Liberalism with the Liberalism of Locke and Mill.

The argument is torturous, and it doesn’t work.  The principles of modern liberalism–and especially modern liberalism’s understanding of the relationship between citizen and government–are in near polar opposition to what goes by the name of Liberal today.

Still, Alterman’s exposition is interesting, and especially interesting because he so obviously wants there to be a connection.

I went into Albion’s Seed here on another occassion, so I’ll skip it here.

Corliss Lamont’s The Philosophy of Humanism was another reread for me, and the second time around gave me pause about my ability to remember what’s in a book when I haven’t reread it in a few years.

Corliss Lamont was one of the original signers of the first Humanist Manifesto and one of the founders of the American Humanist Association.

He was also an outright apologist for Stalinism while it was going on and unrepentant about that fact for all of his life, which lasted into the Sixties. 

It’s a fact that nobody at the American Humanist Association these days seems to care about one way or the other, if they even know.  And there’s a lot of not knowing. 

Lamont was the uncle of Democratic Senate candidate Ned Lamont, who tried to take Joe Liebermann’s seat a few election cycles ago.

During that period, politic discussion groups on the Web buzzed with people outing CL’s Stalinist support and other people declaring that it was all just a lie.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t.

In case you’re wondering, I never did buy this book.  Several years ago, it used to be the standard premium for subscribing to The Humanist magazine, which I did on and off in those days.  As a result, I ended up with two copies.

When I read this book the first time, I remember being very angry at it. 

When I read it this time, I found myself being just flabbergasted.

A lot of it consists of lists–these people are declared Humanists, these other people were probably Humanists even though they said they weren’t because when they lived they couldn’t say they weren’t without getting into a lot of trouble.

What all this reminded me of was a participant in an Internet discussion group I knew a few years ago who would every once in a while insist that lots of particular religious people–say, William F. Buckley–weren’t really believers.  They just said they were believers because once they lost their faith, they were stuck with all their public expressions of belief and didn’t want to embarrass themselves by recanting.

How did the participant know these people were no longer believers?  Well, they couldn’t be.  They were too intelligent.

Yeah, I know, okay.

The bottom line, however, is that this book  just does not set out the philosophy of modern Humanism–or any philosophy of any modern Humanism–clearly enough or with enough detail to be useful to someone trying to find out what modern Humanism is all about.

As far as I know, there is no such book.  Which is too bad.  It would be a  useful thing to have. 

(And no, the New Atheism books are not useful here.  They’re about Atheism.  Humanism is a considerably wider philosophy and lots of atheists are not Humanists.)

And now we come to the novel, and I’ll repeat:  if you don’t want spoilers, stop here.

This is, I think, the third time I’ve read Gone With The Wind. 

I read it the first time when a paperback edition was released to coincide with the re-release of the film in theaters, sometime in the mid-sixties.

I still have that paperback around here somewhere.  It’s got a bright blue cover and the then-shocking  price of $1.25.

Gone With The Wind is one of the two books I think are going to come out of the 20th century and last a hundred years or more.  The other is Atlas Shrugged, and I can hear the howls  already.

For better or worse, though, those two books have significantly changed the way we live and think from what would have been if they’d never existed.

Gone With the Wind, of course, had a highly successful, and still highly popular, movie to help it along, and it’s probably the movie that most people remember.

The book, it turns out, is very, very odd.

In the first, place, the charge that the book is riddled with racism is absolutely true, and it’s riddled right through.

The problem is that it’s not riddled with the same kind of racism all the way through.

This causes some bizarre passages over the course of the book–and by bizarre, I mean completely bonkers.

At the beginning and end of the book, we get the casual racism of well-meaning upper class whites.  They think “darkies” are childlike, and that they look like apes and gorillas, but they also think they’re rather noble. 

If you ever doubted that the old myth of the Noble Savage is racist in its genesis,  you can see it work right here. 

But racist or not, it’s a gentle racism, and because it is it’s open to changes of heart and mind–or at least to doing the right thing in the long run.

What goes on in the middle of the book–and it’s far and away the longest part–is something else altogether.

In fact, the tone changes so drastically it’s almost like watching somebody suffering from Multiple Personality Disorder.

Okay, MPD probably doesn’t exist, but you know what I mean.

The narrative voice  just switches into this other thing and goes beserk.

The first real intimation I had of it was when Scarlett declared that the Yankees were “n– lovers.” 

This was after Mitchell  had taken several occassions in the first part of the book to point out that “ladies and gentlemen”–that is, quality folk–never used the N word.

But it was’t just this.

If all you knew about race relations in the United States was what you’d read up to that point in Gone With the Wind, you’d be hard pressed to explain why being an “N- lover” was a bad thing.

Scarlett herself is on record in several places as loving Mammy more than she loves her own sisters. 

In fact, the deep and abiding love of people like Scarlett for people like Mammy–and the fact that that love is supposedly returned–is one of the prime themes of the beginning of the book and its end.

So is the oft-stated contention that many “negroes” are far superior to certain white people, including most of the members of the Union Army and the eventual occupying force during Reconstruction.

And in those two bracketing parts, Mitchell trains a fine gimlet eye on both the white planter class and on slavery itself.

But then, as soon as she starts writing about Reconstruction, she goes completely off the rails.

The racism in the parts of the book that deal with Reconstruction is not only not mild, it’s completely bonkers.

The very narrative voice changes.  The vocabulary changes.  We get the Ku Klux Klan as a noble enterprise.

The effect is bewildering, and it gets even more bewildering because, as soon as Reconstruction is over and the Democrats are back in the Governor’s office, it just disappers.

As if it had never happened.

I don’t remember noticing any of this when I read this book before.

My guess is that the first time, when I was well under eighteen, I wasn’t paying much attention to the race issues because I was paying attention to Scarlett’s love life.

Scarlett’s love life is what most people pay attention to in this book, and it’s certainly what most people pay attention to in the movie.

To do the movie credit, however, it lacks the racial schizophrenia of the book. 

It was, all in all, a very odd experience. 

It’s also one of the few times I can say that I am thoroughly and unambiguously glad that the movie has more influence than the book.

And now, it’s getting to be that time of day when I need to go off and Do Things.

So I’ll go.

Written by janeh

May 4th, 2013 at 9:55 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'The April List'

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  1. I checked Amazon for comments on the book by Eric Alterman and decided it was too centered on the US to be of interest to me.

    But Jane’s comment about Locke and Mill struck a nerve. I consider myself a liberal in their terms but most people consider me a conservative.


    4 May 13 at 6:08 pm

  2. I’ve only read Gone with the Wind once and don’t remember the details. But, IIRC, the book really has 3 sections. The first is pre Civil War when slavery was a political issue, the second was the Civil War when the “white south” was fighting for its life and slavery was a life and death issue, the third was post civil war when the South was under military occupation and the “white south” was trying to regain control of their states. It wouldn’t surprise me if a professional historian found that racism was different in each of those periods. Perhaps the author did a better job of imaging life during those periods than we associate with “fiction” and “novel”.


    4 May 13 at 6:25 pm

  3. With JD on this, though I’ll grant you it’s been a few years. It’s much easier to think kindly of thoroughly subordinate blacks than of people who are running for office and forming black militias. The end of Reconstruction didn’t restore the old order, but it ended the perceived threat.
    As for the Klan, I’d have to do serious research. It was formally disbanded after Reconstruction, and, Like “liberal,” “KKK” may not have meant the same things in 1870 that it did in the post-WWI period. I don’t think the later Klan would have been very happy with Catholic generals and Jewish cabinet officers, for instance, and the Confederacy had both. Tempting to read ideas backward in time, but it can be misleading.


    4 May 13 at 7:19 pm

  4. Robert, according to Wikipedia you are correct about the KKK,

    The first Klan flourished in the Southern United States in the late 1860s, then died out by the early 1870s. Members adopted white costumes: robes, masks, and conical hats, designed to be outlandish and terrifying, and to hide their identities.[13] The second KKK flourished nationwide in the early and mid-1920s, and adopted the same costumes and code words as the first Klan, while introducing cross burnings.[14] The third KKK emerged after World War II and was associated with opposing the Civil Rights Movement and progress among minorities. The second and third incarnations of the Ku Klux Klan made frequent reference to the USA’s “Anglo-Saxon” blood, harking back to 19th-century nativism and claiming descent from the original 18th-century British colonial revolutionaries


    4 May 13 at 8:15 pm

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