Review: Klara and the Sun

Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel tells the story of Klara, a fully intelligent robot designed as a companion for a child. The style is simple but clear enough. The plot is suspenseful, and characters are compelling despite being lightly sketched: since there are only a few main characters we understand their personalities through their interactions.

I thought overall the effect was something like a short story – I particularly was reminded of Ray Bradbury – expanded to the length of a novel. The novel is a story and only a story. Ishiguro neither makes ethical or philosophical asides himself, nor allows his characters to digress. However, it’s not an adventure, and the conflicts are muted, meaning the book has the tone of stories “about” some theme, which I associate with the short story genre: the reader is invited to draw conclusions, or make arguments, about the choices of the characters. Possible candidates for a theme could be: religion and superstition (which I would argue seems to dominate the narration); personhood and uniqueness; and risk, success, and social duties.

I found this a difficult read in places as the plot eventually revolves around an illness – the existence of which as a fact I deal with very badly in my own life, perhaps partly due to having avoiding virtually any serious hurt myself. I was fascinated by how Ishiguro handled this in story – or rather that he doesn’t “handle” it: like the rest, it is just there, an element of the story which must be accepted, starkly unsettling as it can’t be ignored or explained away or minimized.

The other thing worth mentioning is the unique way Klara speaks, especially when compared to her internal narration (the book is written as her first-person account), although that also has its idiosyncracies, which mostly serve to illustrate how she experiences the world.

At the final verdice, Klara and the Sun is a good book. It’s the first I’ve read by Ishiguro: if one assumes his prize-nominated and -winning novels are even better, they also are certainly worth reading as well.

President Trump, Part 2: The Fall of Trump

I wrote a Part 1 way back in January, focusing on the political mistakes made by the Democracts that gave President Trump a viable chance at re-election, but never got around to writing the second part. It’s going to be shorter, from what I remember, than originally planned, because I’ve forgotten what all details I meant to work in.

President Trump entered the early part of 2020, approaching the heart of the campaign season, in a surprisingly strong position. He had weathered a ham-fisted impeachment attempt where the personal motivations appeared to overwhelm any actual interest in the not-that-doubtful charges. The Democratic platform has friends in high places, and some traditional support in low ones – but Trump had done what decades of Republicans had failed to do, and appealed directly for minority support, on the obvious grounds that whether they really cared or not, Democratic policies hadn’t, on the whole, worked out.

And he was out in front of the coronoavirus thing. He’d insisted it was serious; over several months as it spread worldwide and to the US he’d been gifted foreign (Chinese), international (the WHO), and Democratic (chiefly in New York) mismanagement to dunk on – which isn’t good statesmanship, but plays well with a populist base. The staredown with the political establishment was, in short, going extremely well.

And then he blinked.

It’s not a surprise, of course, that many people resented the restrictions put in place to attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus. There were a lot of things that weren’t known about the specific disease; and it was hard to believe, given the spread that continued to happen, that the measures were actually effective. Models showing what could have happened without preventative measures were not successfully explained, and their relatively short-term outlook was open to criticism.

But Trump had made his campaign run by taking on the GOP cronies; there is no good way to explain why he suddenly reversed course on the severity of the problem. Reporting suggested that by March at least two national emergency plans had been developed, one by a team of experts hand-picked by Kushner, and one by a panel of medical industry experts. Instead of using either plan, instead of trying to play FDR and lead the nation against a threat everyone know acknowledged, and which President Trump could have legitimately claimed to have been right about first, he threw in with the reactionaries. Instead of playing the big man in charge, which he’d done so successfully, Trump followed what he saw as his base’s mood. About the only thing he did get on track was the vaccine development authorization effort.

Then, once the coronavirus reality had truly set in, and states – almost all of them, even the most reluctant – started organizing ways to conduct elections by mail or with significant mail components, Trump again took on the inevitable instead of embracing it. It’s arguable he was forced into this logically by the previous stance; but politicians change their minds and hold incompatible positions all the time, and Trump had displayed his mastery of the art. Many of the criticisms leveled at mail-in ballots are entirely reasonable – but instead of trying to do the necessary the best possible way, Trump positioned himself in the way of the inevitable.

It should be mentioned that both of these stances belie the accusationg of fascism. Given every excuse to find an emergency and accumulate more power to the government and his own decision-making, President Trump declined.

It’s also difficult to say for sure how much these decisions contributed to the eventual loss of the election. My thesis is that Trump’s evident influence with the base would have carried at least the vast majority of his actual voters, while actual leadership in the crisis would have convinced enough of the doubters – again bearing in mind the Democratic candidates and platform. The only other plausible counterfactual I see is that the anti-authoritarian strain among Republican voters is in fact so strong that, if President Trump had done as I suggest and maintained his insistence on the coronavirus being a crisis, the GOP base would have split and we’d have seen an actual contested primary.

Ideas & Stories Part 5 – The Lincoln Postulate

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The Gettysburg Address is a convenient length for memorization, but the designers of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC made the remarkable choice to include a portion of a yet more insightful address made by Lincoln: I refer to his second Inagural. It is doubtful whether all the tomes laboriously compiled by the efforts of scholarship have significantly added to Lincoln’s recognition of the causes of the Civil War; and oversimplifying, where Lincoln recognized complexity and competing motives, and was unwilling to allege pure villainy, seems to me to actively harm our own comprehension of faults and causes – and effects.

I quote here a selection from Lincoln’s most profound and moral judgment offered in the speech: “If we shall suppose that American slavery is [an] offence… which… [God] now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war… shall we discern therein any departure from those attributes which the believer in a living God always ascribe to Him? … [I]f God wills that [the war] continue, until all the walth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword… so still it must be said ‘the judgements of the Lord are true and righteous altogether’.”

It may easily be argued that forced labor for another is not always unjust. How else, for instance, is a poor thief to pay back what he owes for what he stole, than to see at least some part of the wages of his work given to his victim? (Assuming he has work, the ensuring of which and what to do if not is not the point here.) But for America to have proclaimed freedom and liberty for all men, and then to keep some in life-long slavery, is easily recognized as a violation of the most basic principle of honor, which is honesty. The Founding Fathers recognized this, but shied away from carrying through their principles in fear of civil unrest and for their own fortunes, even though American independence did see some measures taken in the succeeding years to reduce and remove slavery in several states independently.

But the overall offence remained. It is noteworthy that Lincoln sees the joint responsibility “both North and South” – where Southern apologists wish to downplay any role played by slavery (in contrast to the writings of the times) and many today wish to justify themselves by only villifying those they can cast conveniently as the “slaveholders and rebels”.

In God’s providence, the Civil War ended mere months after Lincoln’s speech; but we can hardly have been said to have heeded Lincoln’s warning. Measures imposed on the southern states were motivated as much by revenge as concern for the freed slaves; and removed purely in political manuevering with no concern for – with wilfull ignorance or at times even approval of – the resulting treatment of black citizens.

Although black slavery and anti-black racism have dominated American political crises for some time, at no point do I see a concerted effort to put race aside, treat the victimized as citizens, and assess what may actually be due in restitution or, as we say, “damages”. Perhaps the closest was the effort immediately after the Civil War to settle former slaves in ownership of land confiscated from the southern grandees or otherwise available; but land policy has hardly been a bright point in American political management.

Speaking of land, much of the sovereignty over what the United States now governs was taken by force, often in violation of treaty or a succession of treaties, from other American nations. Which is known if ignored, but I mention it to make the point that there are many other “offences” which Americans might be held accountable for – often, as with slavery, excused on specious racial grounds. We might consider this particular set of violations offences against the right of property, essential to our understanding of freedom, and even – though as best I can tell, apocryphally – sometimes alleged as the original word replaced later by “happiness” in the Declaration.

More recently, various manias for sterilization, euthanasia, and, most publicly, abortion have placed us in defiance of the right we declare to life for “all men”. If we alarmed by civil unrest and public obscenity, we can hardly do other than say, with Lincoln, that we have gotten more than was coming to us, and the degree of the consequences is in God’s hands at this point.

The great need today is not new programs, new services, greater central organization, and so on, which are generally most popular today on all sides. We are in need of repentance, reform, and restitution, in consonance with principles and laws already known: incidentally also of restitution of our self-government to ourselves. It can hardly be argued that the modern American populace displays much self-control; but the opportunities were largely removed with the bloat of existing schools and roads and townships and congressional districts and bureaucracies and regulations and corporations to encompass larger and larger populations, instead of replicating the local organizations necessary to meaningful self-government.

Only repentance can be urged – even though we may yet find, with the later kings of Judah, that the corporate guilt built up is overwhelming and “all our boasted pomp of yesterday is one with Ninevah and Tyre”.

Review: Ellison’s Invisible Man

Reading Invisible Man produced an odd sort of emotional whiplash. Ellison’s prose is wonderful, and the reader is brought to identify with the struggles of his protagonist, who is misled by a series of abusive, hypocritical, or simply thoughtless superiors – as might happen to anyone. But Ellison, being and writing a black man in America, constantly considers not only his individual circumstances but his – or the character’s – role in relation to the racially-defined classes of his America and the power relationships – equally hypocritical socially as individually where we have said “all men are created equal”.

The emotional difficulty is this: Ellison’s wonderful prose creates identity between his narrator protagonist and the reader. But much of the tenor of discourse about racism today suggests that the identity is false – that for a white reader to perceive an identity with a black author’s concerns, especially about race, is not possible. I don’t believe this myself – Seneca’s dictum that “nothing human is foreign to me” is the right approach – but it colors the cultural atmosphere from which I read. That we all can identify with Ellison’s lament is in fact the point, and what makes the additional abuses heaped on his narrator’s life purely by an accident of skin color so horrific.

“Life is to be lived, not controlled; and humanity is won by continuing to play in face of certain defeat.” So Ellison writes in the epilogue, and a lovely thing it is to have said. But I am not sure if Ellison believed it; and his protagonist surely does not. Or, does not at the end; or, has found the certain defeat too certain, and is content to abandon humanity. Society having failed to respect his manhood – having failed, in the metaphor begun in the title, even see his humanity – one can only pity the descent of gullible youth into paranoia or perhaps insanity; the novel is a classic tragedy in somewhere between three and five acts depending on your inclinations.

Ellison’s writing is magnificent, and I highly recommend this book to any mature reader prepared to deal with a certain amount of obscenity, not so much of language but in fact of scene, both sexual and otherwise.