Plath, Sylvia: Ariel

There are many advantages to having an autistic mindset. Worry isn’t really much of a problem because my thinking is much to linear. Abstraction is a mystery to me – at least in poetry form. I can get poetry written for children, but when it comes to stuff as abstract as Plath’s is I’m lost. I read the words and think that they’re beautifully written, but interpreting them is out. So, I cheat.

The internet is a wonderful place to analyse collections like Ariel. But it will be a while until I brave poetry again.

Weber, Max: On Bureaucracy (Iron Cage)

It is easy to see the despair of this man sitting in his iron cage. For some reason he’s stuck there and probably will be for quite some time. This despair is part of what Max Weber wishes to illustrate with his description of bureaucracy’s iron cage.

Rules are good. They are part of what makes it possible to have a functioning society. But sometimes (or maybe all the time) power ends up with the few (like Hitler’s Germany). Having just read “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas” I was reminded of Weber’s work. Along with Ervin Staub I think Weber manages to prompt insight into our own and society’s darker potential. Wikipedia manages to give an easily understood description of Weber’s thoughts on bureaucracy and rationalization.

Through rationalisation and dehumanization through strange bureaucratic rules, a group of people like the Jews experienced the Holocaust. While the Jews were dehumanized, it was also easier for those who sat behind their desks following whatever regulations were sent their way to rationalise away that humanity.

Adolph Eichmann is a classic in that regard. He could/would not see that he had done anything wrong for he had only “followed directives”. In fact his only regret was that they had not done a good enough job. But Eichmann wasn’t anything unusual when you look at the role beureaucracy has had in making lives more difficult or even horrible for others. Sometimes one might even wonder if along the way some bureaucrats lost their own humanity and as such became slaves of a system that they depended upon to give them their wages.

The Boys” by Martin Gilbert is another book that illustrates the effects of such a dehumanization of people. It seems to me that we need to be aware of our darker sides. Only through acknowledging them will we be able to make conscious choices (for good or bad).

In my opinion all of these authors ought to be on everyone’s must-read list.


Norwegian article that illustrates Weber’s theory in practice

Gilbert, Martin: The Boys – Triumph Over Adversity (1996)

ForsideWhen I read “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas” I was once again reminded of the story of 732 Jewish boys and girls whose story Martin Gilbert tells in his “The Boys: Triumph Over Adversity“. One book is from the viewpoint of someone standing outside the suffering while the other one is about the kids who went through hell. I’m not a believer in the many after-life versions of hell, but I am certainly a believer in the human ability to create hell for their fellow humans. In fact, we’re really creative in the many ways we cause others pain, and that worries me.

The Boys: Triumph Over Adversity tells such a story. This is the story of children who (along with their siblings and parents) were uprooted from their homes and dragged into the horrors of the Holocaust. These children were originally from Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary. Their lives were the lives of ordinary children with loving parents. As they just below and above ten years old for the most part, these children had no understanding of all of the abrupt changes in their lives. From living in regular homes, they were stuffed into ghettos and then dragged to even worse circumstances.

And then it all ended. No more parents or siblings, all alone in the world after having endured what only few people in the world have had to endure.

After their liberation from the camps, they had to begin rebuilding their lives in Britain. Despite being physically and emotionally drained by their nightmare past, they drew strength from their group. After leaving their hostels, they remained a close-knit and devoted band of siblings. Their families having been destroyed, they created a family among themselves.

So many people ask themselves how something as terrible as the Holocaust could have happened. I doubt there is any one answer to that question. After all, we let history repeat itself all over the world. What I do believe is that we are all capable of becoming something we had never thought was possible. Ervin Staub in his “Roots of Evil” and Max Weber in his “On Bureaucracy” – Iron Cage both try to look at why people are dehumanized and warn us of the consequences.

Staub, Ervin: The Roots of Evil – The Origins of Genocide and Other Group Violence (1992)

The Roots of Evil - Ervin Staub

Some books are life-changing. The Roots of Evil by Ervin Staub is one of them in my life. I was at one of those life-choices that we sometimes make. Studying psychology cleared up a lot of questions in my mind. When we got to Staub’s look at the horrible choices some of us make (either as a group or as an individual) I saw how caught I had been in group-thinking that makes “Us” look so much better than “Them”.

Genocide, mass killing, torture and war. Psychology, socialization and culture. How does one go from being a regular, boring person to being a torturer of citizens of ones own country? How did Hitler get an average population of humans to participate in invasion and genocide? Is there such a thing as “EVIL”?

In this clip Stephen Fry discusses the importance of language in the mass-extermination of eight million people during World War II in Europe. (At the bottom of this post see Staub’s lecture in Stockholm.)

My father’s father was a Prisoner of War during the Occupation here in Norway. During his time at Grini (one of the POW camps) he was tortured for information regarding his cell-mates. Not the kind of cell-mates you have in prison, but the kind you have when you participate in resistance against those you consider your oppressors. He was part of the Communist underground.

Torture is one of the many practices of war that Staub discusses in The Roots of Evil. He shows us how the torturer is habituated to the specialized kind of violence that torture is and he shows us that these torturers are simply people. Some of them probably enjoyed their work more than others, but the rest were trained to see the torturee as an object/non-human/sub-human that held needed information.

After the war, the US was incredibly strict about some of the rules for receiving Marshall aid. One of them was a fight against the Evil of Communism. My war-hero grandfather remained an unsung hero due to his political views. He was harassed by employers and spied on by our Norwegian surveillance department. There again propaganda reared its ugly head and lessened his value as a human being.

Source: History Lists
Roman destruction of Carthage | Source: History Lists

Humanity’s mass exterminations of groups of people follows us through history. The practice of killing all of the men above a certain age while keeping women and younger children alive goes at the very least back to our earliest written records. According to Ben Kiernan, “The First Genocide” happened around 149-146 BC (Jones, 2006). This was the Roman destruction of Carthage. In 2015 the United Nations called the Islamic State out on the IS attempt to wipe out the Yazidi minority in Iraq.

So! Nothing new. According to Staub, we need to learn to interpret early warning signs in order to avoid getting to a point where genocide happens. By that time, it will be too late. According to Staub cultural and social patterns and historical circumstances are vital in understanding whether a country, a people or a belief is in the danger zone. And are there ever plenty of traps that people can fall into (even those who are aware of the dangers):

  • Cultural stereotyping
  • Cultural devaluation
  • Societal self-concept
  • Moral exclusion
  • A need for connection
  • Authority orientation
  • Personal and group goals
  • “Better world” ideologies
  • Justification
  • Moral equilibrium, and so on.

Within this conceptual framework, Staub then considers the behavior of perpetrators and bystanders in four historical situations:

  1. Holocaust (his primary example)
  2. Genocide of Armenians in Turkey
  3. Genocide in Cambodia
  4. Disappearances in Argentina

Is there hope. Perhaps and it depends. It has taken us thousands of years to not learn a single thing from history. People like Ervin Staub have warned us against a repetition of gruesome actions. Perhaps the secret lies in people like Staub being able to write about terrors and publish his writings. Once people like Staub begin disappearing from the public arena, we must really begin to worry. Until then, we can only hope that by learning some of the warning signs and recognizing that we, ourselves, are also potentially people who do terrible things, will keep us from them.

Monk, Devon: Dead Iron (2011)

Dead Iron

The Age of Steam is the new series started by Devon Monk. This time she writes steam-punk (I wonder where they got the word steam-punk?). I don’t really understand why so many fantasy buffs don’t like steam-punk. It’s great fun along with most other fantasy. As Monk is the author, the quality of the book is guaranteed (thankfully). It’s light entertainment (a little heavier than the lightest) and doesn’t strive for moralistic or philosophical preaching. However, Monk does treat her characters as complex beings with dark and light sides. I abhor literature where the goodies are sugar-good and the baddies are black as tar bad. Way to go Monk.

Dead Iron is the first installation in the series about the bounty hunter Cedar Hunt. Cedar has a “slight” health problem that becomes uncontrollable about once a month. To protect others, he lives a bit outside town.

When a small boy goes missing, and the parents go to Cedar for help. After a lot of hesitation he takes on the case. During his search Cedar meets other strange people and a lot of prejudice and fear. In Dead Iron, Monk combines fantasy and technology in a wild-west world where the impact of iron and technology threatens to destroy the presence of magic.

Monk, Devon: Magic to the Bone (Allie Beckstrom) (2008)

Devon Monk has written the Allie Beckstrom series. Allie Beckstrom is one of many strong urban fantasy women. What she has that makes her different from everyone else is Devon Monk. Devon Monk is an excellent urban fantasy author. Her writing is delightful and the entertainment value of the books is high. Humor, action, magic and some romance are all ingredients of this series. I see that the series is recommended for ages 18 and up, but am not really certain why. Maybe I’m too Norwegian???

Allie lives in a Portland where magic has become something anyone can use. But magic extracts a price – memory loss, pain or sickness. If you do not want to pay the price, there are actually people who are willing to do so – for a sum.

Allie’s father is Daniel Beckstrom, the inventor of the rods that attract magic, drawing it away from buildings and into wells beneath the city. He and she do not get along, partly due to her choice of career. You see, Allie is a Hound, someone who hunts magic abusers through smell.

In Magic in the Bone Allie has to hunt for someone who is using blood-magic. All the evidence is pointing right to her father as thee perpetrator. This throws Allie into a world of corporate espionage and black magic.

Devon Monk does an excellent job of introducing the reader to Allie’s universe. This is high quality entertainment.

UN: Women A World Report Part II

UN Women logo
UN Women’s logo

Sometimes a gem just drops into your lap. Our library had a book sale and I bought a bag of books for 50NOK. Inside I found this collection of essays from 1986. In connection with the end of UN’s 1975-1985 this status report was created. In it we find women who meet other cultures and report on what they see. This book was sponsored and compiled by New Internationalist, a cooperative specializing in social justice and world development issues. In addition to publishing its own magazine, it collaborates with the UN and other organizations to produce a wide range of press, television, and educational materials.

The essayists are:

Toril Brekke of Norway meets Kenyan women whose husbands have travelled to the cities to find work.

Angela Davis of the US travels to Egypt where virginity is of prime importance.

Anita Desai travels from India to Norway to investigate gender roles.

Buchi Emecheta of Nigeria travels to the United States to investigate the impact of the education boom on sex roles

Marilyn French of the US investigates the difference between middle-class and poor Indian women.

Germaine Greer of Australia meets the women of Cuba, women who are considered both active comrades and sex-objects.

Elena Poniatowska of Mexico investigates the effects of the sexual revolution on the women of Adelaide, Australia.

Nawal El Saadawi of Egypt meets women involved in political activities seeking to change the definition of family and society.

Manny Shirazi of Iran investigates the impact Soviet socialism has had on the female relatives she meets.

Jill Tweedy of England meets the first generation of literate women in Indonesia

Use public libraries

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