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The October List

with 4 comments

I’ve just had something very odd happen with the dashboard for this blog.  Most of the time, when something like this happens, it is because I have Done Something to annoy the WordPress program.  Some of the time it is because the WordPress program has updated.

I really hate things updating.

But it’s into November, and I need to post the October book list.

It’s kind of an embarrassing list.

I started the first book on it on October 1.

I finished it on October 20.

And in that, there is a tale.  Or maybe a rant.

So, the list is:

63) Steven Pinker. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.

64) Wilkie Collins.  The Moonstone.

You may be thinking, as you look at this, that it took me 20 days to read the Pinker because it was a difficult book, but I think that the reason is almost the opposite.

I’ve read much longer books of much greater difficulty just this year.  And I’ve read Pinker books that are just as long and far more difficult and done it in far less time.

I think that part of the problem with this one is that, although it started off to be very interesting, it ended up being…fuzzy and mushy and I don’t know what.

He starts out with something that is, indeed a fact–that your chances of dying a death by violence, in war or crime or anything else, are far smaller now than they were even 300 years ago.  And that the trend, in Western countries, has been steadily downward for generations except for a few blips.

And those blips were not the Holocaust or the Second World War.

All that’s fine, I suppose, except that all his attempts to explain why this has been the case turn out to be either just-so stories or exercises in not recognizing the downsides of some of the trends he’s celebrating.

For me, the biggest one was his gushing about the “feminization” of society.  I agree with him that feminization has occurred, but I don’t agree that this is all sweetness and light and good news caused by women’s wonderful tendency to be relationship oriented instead of competitive.

In fact, for me, the “feminization” of society is a great harm.  It means increased scrutiny of even the most private choices and decisions in life, a nearly fanatical drive to regulate behavior in an effort to keep everybody “safe,” and a crushing and suffocating pressure to enforce and police conformity.

Pinker probably doesn’t know it, but this is the character of most highly feminized institutions–girls’ schools and women’s colleges, for instance.  It’s not an accident of history that mean girl cliques are mean girl cliques, or that it’s Mrs. Grundy and not Mr.

Take a look at messes like the Salem witch trials and what you will find is women, even when they are not allowed an official role, driving the entire thing forward.

Take it from somebody who spent her entire childhood being told she had a mind like a man, and then got kicked out of her consciousness raising group for being a “male-identified” woman.

I think that what happened with my reading of this book is that I got more and more reluctant to do it.  I found magazines to read, things to write, essays to scan and even correcting to do. 

I wasn’t even fighting with the thing.  I can, and do, read books I get really mad at, but that usually speeds up my reading time. 

Get me mad enough, and I read every word at a pace faster than speed reading.

This book did not make me angry.  It didn’t even get me annoyed.  It just sort of fuzzed out my brain.  It was almost all generalities, and what wasn’t was references to “social science” research whose protocols sounded a bit…not what you wanted to make decisions on.

What’s more, Pinker constantly did that thing, depressingly common in “social science,” where uncomfortable realities are left unsaid and sort of scooted past, in the hopes that nobody will notice.

Pinker goes on for a long time talking about how racial discrimination and even actual racism has receded over however many years.  And I can attest to that from my own experience.

But then, he talks about affirmative action and says that, no matter how much time we spend arguing it, we won’t ever really get rid of it, because we know that if we got rid of it there’d be practically no people of color in academia and the professions.

But, for God’s sake–if that IS the case, then one of two things must be true.

Either racism HASN’T receded, or the racists were right and there are not just small incremental differences in intellectual ability by race, but VAST ones.

Pick one.  Don’t pretend the implication isn’t there in what you’ve said.

If you want to read something by Pinker, read The Blank Slate, which is an excellent book with something new to say.

The other book is one of the earliest known detective novels in English.  That’s Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone, part detective novel, part Victorian domestic drama, part Boy’s Own Adventure, complete with enormous jewels, opium, sinister Indians, all that kind of thing.

But there’s something else that really bugged me.

The book opens up with an account of how the diamond called The Moonstone was acquired by the man who eventually bequeaths it to our heroine.

The story is not only a first rate piece of nastiness, but it is portrayed as having been considered nastiness even by the man’s own comrades and relatives.  So clearly considered, in fact, that those relatives refuse ever to speak to or encounter the man again.

Then the man dies, leaves the diamond in his will to his niece, and the niece and her relatives and friends are followed by three Indian men looked to get the diamond back and return it to the shrine it was taken from.

And, at that point, the detecting starts, and NOBODY brings up the obvious fact that the Indians are not trying to steal the diamond, they’re only trying to get it back from the people who stole it from them.

Shouldn’t this make SOME difference to the way in which the authorities investigate the Indians?

The muddle gets even worse when, at the very end, the Moonstone is returned to its shrine and Collins treats that as just and right.

I suppose it’s another problem of–PICK one, for God’s sake.


It’s a fun book, and I’ve got The Woman in White around here somewhere.

It’s Sunday.

There is work.

Written by janeh

November 3rd, 2013 at 12:17 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'The October List'

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  1. I’m curious. What are the few blips which are not the Holocaust or Second World War?


    4 Nov 13 at 10:07 pm

  2. Pinker on race preferences. Writing to justify a particular policy always takes the same form. You will find the same thing whether it’s a “captain of industry” a general, a politician or whoever.

    The policy cannot be conceded to be a failure, because that would indicate a change in policy was needed. It cannot be held to be a complete success because either (1) everyone can see it isn’t or (2) in the case of “temporary” measures like censorship, tax hikes of race preferences, complete success would mean the program was no longer needed. So the program must be, ever and always, a PARTIAL success, which must be continued. In cases where the ostensible condition has worsened–see government regulations and economic inequality–one falls back on saying that matters would be even worse if the policy were abandoned. (Can you say “better than they would have been otherwise?” I thought you could.)

    Once an author goes this route, I simply abandon them as a waste of time. When I want to read something that deals neither in facts nor reasoning, the fiction shelves beckon.


    5 Nov 13 at 11:53 am

  3. Affirmative action has always puzzled me. I think that equality requires that we judge children on the basis of their own merit and not on the basis of their parents.

    Affirmative action is supposed to help equality but asks about the color or income of a child’s parents.


    5 Nov 13 at 7:44 pm

  4. The idea is, of course, that the lack of opportunity to get the same education, or at least the same grades, based on race or sex, can be compensated for by allowing one to progress without the paper qualifications. Sometimes this works, especially when the paper qualifications are entirely or partly irrelevant to achievement at the next level, which is sometimes the case, but which I doubt many proponents of affirmative action would like to acknowledge.

    And a serious unintended side-effect is that everyone of that particular race or sex who holds a high position is seen as having only gotten there because of affirmative action, no mattter how brilliant or how well-qualified the person actually is.


    6 Nov 13 at 9:32 am

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