On Reading fiction

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A student in my War, Peace and Strategy course recently e-mailed me, “…it is extremely difficult to put oneself into the mind of Putin.” To which I replied, “Getting into the minds of others is where reading (and writing) fiction comes in. It teaches you to think outside of your own experience or worldview.”

A decade after September 11th, I taught a politics and literature course. The course was taught as part of the political theory subfield. Previous syllabi consisted of excerpts from classic writers and theorists. Since I was not a theorist, I chose a different tact. Instead, I would look at political themes in contemporary literature.

  • The question of radicalization and political violence was explored by reading The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid. By the way, the movie version is a disaster partly because it removes the ambiguity about the two main characters’ roles.
  • Reading Lolita in Tehran (technically not fiction) looked at women’s roles under a theocracy. We used it to discuss different views of society, feminism, freedom and tolerance.
  • The Jungle is customarily read to see progressive politics or socialism. However, we looked at the universality of the working class immigrant experience and how the Eastern European experience is being repeated with recent Latin American and African immigrants.

Although I heard about the immigrant experience from my mother (a refugee from Nazi Germany), I have learned more from recent authors.

  • Ha Jin is one of my favorite authors (defined as I’ll read anything they wrote). His two books, A Free Life and A Song Everlasting describe recent Chinese immigrants’ experiences.
  • Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake tells a different tale, that of Indians balancing assimilation to American culture and maintaining their Indian identity.

One of my dissertation advisors once told me that he could not remember the last time he had read a book of fiction. All I could think of was, ‘How sad.’ He was an international scholar, including work in political psychology. I thought of how much he was missing by not allowing himself to place himself in the minds of those whose experience is different than his own.

  • Kim Richardson’s two books, The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, are emotional trips to the world of Depression and 1950s Appalachia and the prejudice for someone that is only ‘slightly’ different.
  • Even though I was a student of World War 1, it wasn’t until I read fellow Coloradan Aimie Runyan’s Girls on the Line that I had more than a cursory understanding of their lives and importance. Aimie has taken on the task of telling the story of women in both World War 1 and 2, a series of enthralling books. I also recommend her two books on women in French Colonial Canada – Daughters of New France.

I can’t write about this subject without recommending two authors who may both claim to be great historical fiction writers.

  • Kate Quinn, whose The Rose Code and The Diamond Eye need to be made into movies immediately. They are high-tension thrillers about women in nontraditional roles in World War 2.
  • Ellen Marie Wiseman’s books tell the stories of marginalized women and children in the early Twentieth Century.

NOTE: Rather than clutter this with links, I leave it to interested readers to find in their local libraries or from their favorite booksellers (independent ones, if possible).

On the use of history and writing historical fiction

In my other job (the one that pays), I always caution students about using history.

The first issue is selection bias, defined as choosing your case on what you are trying to prove (the dependent variable). Given over 5000 years of recorded history, it is almost always possible to find a historical case or cases that will make your point. This is why I caution them about when anyone ever starts an argument with the term, “History shows . . .” For every case that students present, I can and do present a counter-example. This has been evident in the justifications by the Russians for their invasion and the Ukrainians for their sovereignty.

The second issue is interpretation. Even if there is agreement on which case, what that case means is subject to the analyst’s worldview. For example, when I was still a graduate student researching my dissertation, one of my cases was the Cuban Missile Crisis (or the Caribbean Crisis in Soviet/Russian journals). In 2000, I found over 130 peer-reviewed journal articles in the political science literature. As a friend in the history department told me – history told the first time is glorification, the second time it is told is revisionism, and the third time you are starting to get to the truth.

Although this is a problem in the social sciences, at least there are criteria and tests that are applied to fix both problems.

For a writer of historical fiction (my third career), it presents a challenge – how do I write an entertaining story with fictional characters and still present a true account for what happened? This is why caveats and history notes become so important.

And remember that as long as we have done our research, we are probably no better or worse than historians.

I Fear the Future

 I fear for the future.

Teaching security, I’m often asked what I see as the biggest threat to the future. Most expect my answer to be some technological change or another state. But, what I answer is my biggest fear is we have a generation that is too easily offended and does not understand how rough the world can be.

This column will probably offend.

Fear component one. I teach at a major state university where you would expect that students have a grasp on history. WRONG! Almost anything beyond their attention span (the last 5 to 6 years) is outside their knowledge base.

Fear component two. Presentism is interpreting the past based on current attitudes and values and has become the standard for my students to the degree that Orwell could not have predicted. For example, a few years ago, I was talking about the role of the hegemon and mentioned that slavery was a universally accepted institution until the British, the hegemon at the time, decided that it wouldn’t. Unfortunately, some of my students interpreted this as my supporting slavery, so I had to defend what I said to my program director. Fortunately, he was a historian and said I was factually correct.

Fear component three. The assumption of universal values. This is especially a problem for students whose experience is predominately upper middle class. They don’t understand the appeal of populists, nationalists or any other value system that is not theirs. So, if I say that much of the world still does not accept same-sex marriage or homosexuality, they call them backward or ‘stupid.’ Far be it from them, in accepting diversity to accept that cultural and historical views are not in line with current points of view.

Fear component four. Failing to understand that hard power is the way for most of the world. Last year, I was teaching a conflict course, and students asked why I thought Putin would invade Ukraine (this was before the fact). I bluntly answered, “Because he can!” Europe could not stop him, and Biden had demonstrated that the US did not have the will when he said we would not send troops. I am teaching the same course this semester, and students still don’t understand that force is a necessary component of the world.

The bottom line is that the West has raised a generation of Eloi while the rest of the world is still the Morlocks, and no degree of wishing will change the eventual outcome.

A Writer’s Dilemma

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I’ve started to work on a story about the ‘Canaries‘ of World War 1. These were the female munition workers during World War 1. They were called canaries because the chemicals used in manufacturing explosives tinted their hair and skin yellow. This story is part of the series of stories I have written about the war. My goal is to have it accepted to the Northern Colorado Writers Anthology, Exception/All centered around the question of ‘What does normal look like? and ‘Is anything ever truly normal?’

Many of these women had never worked or had been in traditional female roles such as household service. Yet, they responded to a national need and were significant contributors to the war efforts. When the war ended, many were dismissed. Their jobs were given to returning soldiers as the country returned to ‘normal.’ However, they and others showed that women could serve in these non-traditional roles. Their mistreatment motivated many to join the suffragette movement and demand the vote and equality under the law. Vivien Newman examines these changes in Changing Roles: Women After the Great War. The changes in society, such as the role of women, are just part of my fascination with World War 1

So, here is my dilemma.

  • I have the characters. Anne and Carol are two housemaids that were dismissed when their house closed and had to find employment. They were able to find it as munition workers.
  • I have the dramatic narratives and history of women that had done this work to provide context and source material for the story.

In other words, I have all the components of a good story. What I don’t have is a story that meets the three-act structure of a five-thousand-word short story and also serves the goal of showing that society is constantly changing.

And this is my dilemma, which I suspect is familiar to many historical fiction writers. How do I tell an entertaining story that fits within the historical context and provides lessons for today?

I have until August 15th and any suggestions will be gratefully accepted.

POST SCRIPT – I finished the story in time to submit it. One of my Beta readers thought it had the makings of a longer story or short novel. We shall see.

What is Normal?

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My local writing group, the Northern Colorado Writers, announced that the theme for its 2023 Anthology is ‘An Exploration of Normal.’ They asked for poems, stories and essays about what normal looks like? And do we need to return to the status quo?

In preparation for writing my story about the Canaries (women munition workers in WW1), I’ve been thinking about what is normal and how you know what it is?

Dictionaries define normal as conforming to a standard or the typical state or condition. In other words, normal is based on some arbitrary reference point.

In my doctoral dissertation on prospect theory, I spent a lot of time on reference points and how they affect risk acceptance and decision making. Although there is a status quo bias, prospect theory shows that the reference point is not fixed and can shift based on how the issue is framed. BTW, this took me two years and twenty mathematical propositions to prove the microeconomic basis of this statement.

Which brings me back to the belief that the idea of ‘normal’ is arbitrary. Without going full-on situational, the diversity and fluidity of normality are proof that defining normal is a losing proposition. If you have traveled, you know that what may be acceptable in one country/culture is abnormal in others. You can see this in a critical scene in the Inglorious Bastards where the Americans are detected because of the way they ordered drinks in a bar. (If you haven’t seen it or have never been to Europe, it has to do with whether you include the thumb when signaling for a drink).

There is, of course, a whole side discussion of defining normal as a method of social control. When a politician says, ‘That’s not us’ or ‘We don’t act that way’ they have established that any disagreement is deviance with the implication of immorality and criminality.

So, coming out of the pandemic, we have a new normal where you don’t shake hands (or if you do, it is a political statement) and wearing masks is accepted without comment. This status change only took two years which shows how quickly normal changes.

Which brings me back to the title question – What is Normal?

Of course, I cannot discuss normality without talking about Abby Normal.

The End of Rationality

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One of my recent reads was Fukuyama’s Liberalism and its Discontents. He is best remembered for The End of History and The Last Man. Published in 1992, he asserted that the end of the Cold War and the Soviet Union was evidence that liberal democracy was the new norm because there were no better ideas.

Liberalism and its Discontents is him saying he had it wrong. That liberalism faced challenges from identity politics by progressives and nationalism from conservatives. However, that is not what I want to talk about (unless you would like to pay my standard speaking fee).

What got my attention was the chapter on rationality. Rationality has many definitions. In game theory, rationality is an actor’s pursuit of a specific goal. However, common usage is thinking sensibly or being endowed with reason. More simply, it is acting based on facts and reality. He argues that politics (who gets what, when and how) and policy (government distribution of resources) have lost their anchor. They are now the result of whims and emotion. Policy is now a speech act. Expressing an action is the same as its performance. So, if a politician says that something is true, it is therefore true.

“So, what is the point? I thought this blog was not political.” It’s not. It is, however, about the way we see and think about the world.

In previous posts (“Words, Words, Words,” “Free Speech?!”), I talked about how words have the power to define and how acceptable speech is used to halt speech. For example, a statement such as ‘The science is settled’ (a comment no real scientist would make) shuts down any further conversation.

Fukuyama has taken this one step further. The words are focused on emotions and not facts. Facts may get in the way because they negate the truthfulness of the statement. The American comedian, Stephen Colbert, coined ‘truthiness’ to describe the belief that information is true based on perception without evidence.

We do not have the end of history because liberal democracy is the ultimate political-economic system. Instead, we have each individual creating their own reality, which is the end of constructivism; people actively make their own knowledge.

What hope is there for making progress if there is no agreement about the status quo?

What hope for writers when everyone is already creating their own world?

Words, Words, Words

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I’ve always been fascinated by words, meaning, and nuances. Editing honors theses and my work; I would get lost in finding just the right word to describe something or evoke an emotion which is why I found Pip Williams’ The Dictionary of Lost Words so intriguing treatment. Although on the surface, it is an account of the writing of the Oxford English Dictionary, the better story is the subject of excluded or ‘lost’ words and why some terms are acceptable and some are not.

As a graduate student, one of my required readings was Orwell’s Politics and the English Language, in which he talks about language’s purpose is confusion and control and not communication. I was also introduced to what at the time was a new theory – constructivism. Many contemporaries in grad school (this was in the mid ‘90s) did not think much of the theory. However, I found the argument that words have multiple meanings and the interpretation has a political impact intriguing. For example, Alexander Wendt famously wrote that “Anarchy is What States Make of It.” In IR, anarchy or the absence of government is a significant concept. Saying that it did not have an agreed-upon definition undercuts critical concepts and theories.

This is the heart of Williams’ The Dictionary of Lost Words story. The connection of words and power. Williams’ ‘lost’ words are excluded because they are used by lower classes and women and therefore not ‘proper’ speech. By declaring them not ‘proper,’ it delegitimizes the speakers and dismisses them as members of the decision-making classes.

My point is that we are seeing this with the rise of rules about acceptable speech in the public sphere. Limits are established by ‘hate speech’ rules, tech company exclusions of ‘fake news,’ and the American government’s recent establishment of a Disinformation Governance Board. Unfortunately, the name has shades of the Soviet Union and Orwell’s Ministry of Truth.

Unfortunately, this narrowing of speech is most evident in academia, where we are taught that defining what we are studying is the first step of an investigation. The rise of speech codes has limited discussion of important topics because students and nontenured faculty (over 50% of all undergraduate teachers) know that they will be penalized for using those words. Therefore, discussions of topics such as abortion, group versus individual rights, and policy issues such as COVID and Climate Change are absent or constrained.

In teaching and researching decision-making and public policy, I always highlight the influence of agenda-setting (what is important) and framing (how to talk about it) on the outcome. Prospect theory is based on how the framing of risk changes its perception. By restricting speech in academia and the public sphere, we end questions about the validity of policy and the possible solutions.

The fight for free speech is essential to our existence. As Wittgenstein said —

Mental Health and the Monkey

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If you have not heard, May is mental health awareness month and after the last few months, I think we can all use spending time thinking about our own mental health.

Although I’ve never been diagnosed with a mental health issue, I have also never seen a professional for a diagnosis. This could have been from avoidance or it could be that I just don’t like doctors, dentists and lawyers. However, I did realize that I was having issues and did what any academic would do — I researched depression, anxiety and other issues along with philosophy, especially the Stoics (although this was more about how to deal with life).

As any medical professional will tell you, this is not a great approach because you will assume that you have whatever diagnosis you are studying. That is why there are so many stories of interns having strange tropical diseases. In my case, I was convinced that I suffered from each of these – depression, anxiety disorder, asocial personality – and a few others that I tripped over in my research. In the end, my self-diagnosis was that I probably suffered from mild PTSD (not all related to my time and service) leading to dysthymia.

But, being the asocial self-reliant type, I chose to ‘cure’ myself by meditation and mindfulness training. After trying lots of apps (this being the 2020s), I started to use Insight Timer to track my moods and provide meditations (it provides options based on your self-reported mood). During one of the meditations, the counselor/coach talked about the monkey mind, the part of your brain that is constantly talking and creating confusion. Think of it as having social media constantly as background. In my case, I added my focus on ‘To Do’ lists, contingencies and all those little things that I want or think I should do (Duty is a big thing for me).

My solution was simple – Tell the monkey to SHUT UP!

And it seems to be working. I am not stressed and have been able to start writing again after not producing anything original (including blog posts) in months. And by that, I mean more than just this post. I’ve started revisions of a novella and a new story in my World War 1 series.

So, take time to identify your own monkey’s voice and learn not to listen.

Libraries and Librarians

After three weeks, I finally had time to post. University duties, building a set of book presses (for my wife) and monitoring the Ukraine conflict (for my classes) have kept me occupied over the last few weeks.

Speaking of Ukraine, this post about Ukrainian librarians canceling a conference until they have ‘vanquished the invaders’ has been viral on my Facebook feeds.

This motivated me to write about what I see as a new historical fiction genre – books about librarians and booksellers.

I think that the grandaddies of this category may be 84 Charing Cross, the epistolary novel set before and during World War 2. The focus is the relationship between an American author and a British bookstore. However, the focus is on the books and not the conflict. By the way, this was turned into a lovely movie with Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins (pre-Hannibal Lector).

In the last few years, it seems that this has been augmented by an outbreak of new novels.

  • Although it overlaps with World War 1, the conflict in The Personal Librarian tells the story of Belle da Costa Greene, J.P. Morgan’s librarian and the woman that built the Morgan Library. Her conflict was with both racial and gender stereotypes. The story of how she overcomes these and class distinctions is an amazing story of intellect and belief in one’s self.
  • The Paris Bookseller has been getting a lot of press and it should. Like The Personal Librarian, this is the fictional account of a real person. In this case, it is about Sylvia Beach, who started Shakespeare and Company, an English language bookstore in Paris. The real heart of the story is her trying to get Joyce’s Ulysses published in the United States. At the same time, it describes the life of the ‘Lost Generation.’ Details of their lives and loves added much to an appreciation of their work
  • Moving from historical fiction based on real people, there was The Last Bookshop in London. A charming book, it is situated in London during the height of the Blitz. It details the effect of the bombings and death on the population and how they found salvation through books. My heart broke when a favorite character was killed (no spoliers), but I loved the way it ended. A great read for anyone whose idea of a good time was an afternoon in a bookstore (preferably an independent).
  • I am currently racing through The Paris Library about the American Library in Paris during World War 2. The novel is split between Paris before and during the war, and 1980s rural Montana. It is about survival and intergenerational connections through a love of literature.
  • More Rom-Com than historical fiction, I am including The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend in this list because it is just a fun read. After reading the from tales in these other books, you need to take a break.

The links for the books are to Amazon. This is not an endorsement, nor do I get money for the links. It was just the simplest way to add details to the listing. I got most of these from my local library in Longmont, and I recommend that you get your copy from your local library because they can use your support.

By the way, if you have any recommendations, please add them in the comments.


Free Speech?!

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This is probably the only time that I agree with Chomsky

Since I ‘do’ politics every day as a university instructor, I have tried to keep this blog ‘politics-free.’ However, a trend that I’ve seen as my students make me fear for my third career as a writer.

In both classes in political rhetoric and conflict studies, I’ve had students advocate for limits on speech. When I ask them what speech should be limited, they say that ‘hate speech’ or any speech that advocates violence should not be allowed. Unfortunately, their definition of hate speech is generally anything that offends a ‘protected class.’ (For those not familiar, protected classes are defined as individuals or groups defined by a particular trait.)

I point out that as a veteran I am a member of a protected class. Joining the service in 1973 (when I went to the Military Academy), I had individuals wearing that sign swear at me. — What if I say that the peace symbol is offensive? Should I get it banned as a symbol of hate speech?

As for promoting violence, I ask if they would ban the Declaration of Independence or Thomas Paine’s Common Sense both of which were cited as reasons for violent actions?

The sad part is I remember the Free Speech Movement which started on campuses and with the left. It seems now that the sensitivity of modern society and students has made a joke of these efforts.

I won’t get into the banning of books (ALA – Banned and Challenged Books) which looks like a list of great literature.

I don’t have an answer. You can classify this as a rant. But I fear for politics, society, and culture when banning any material because it might be offensive becomes acceptable and a norm.

I leave with this quote from Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart who I remember as a great defender of free speech.

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