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A couple more reviews of the things I’ve been reading.

Bismarck: A Life by Jonathan Steinburg 

This is the first book I’m reviewing that I didn’t actually read. Not that I didn’t try, it was just so unevenly written that I couldn’t make my way past 30-40 pages. I was actually surprised by how badly edited the book was — it included primary quotes, and then would cite details that weren’t present in the quote! The book’s errors became too much to deal with, so I quit. Damn shame too, because I bet a competent biography of Otto von Bismarck would have been some great reading.

One star (I’m sure it’s not a truly worthless book, but its errors are so blatant that it’s practically unreadable.)

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell 

The premise of this book is that success or talent in a given area of expertise are rarely innate gifts of the individual, but are more likely to have been based on some luck in regards to opportunities available to the person or the chance of “being born at the right place at the right time.”

He does able service to the theme, opening the book with a study of Canadian hockey players. Canada has hockey fever, which causes them to have a firm apparatus for selecting the best talent from the youngest players to advance to more advanced training, and then more selection from among that group to more training, etc. As far as the Canadians were concerned, this system picked the best of the best and got them into competition for the draft among Canada’s biggest teams. However, it was discovered that of all the top-tier talent, an overwhelming majority were born in January, February, or March. Gladwell uses this fact to forward a compelling posit: The hockey selection process groups children by age — and January 1st is the cut-off date. Hence, if you’re born on Dec. 31st, you’re competing and compared against other hockey players that may have been playing the game almost a full twelve months than you’ve been. In addition, due to the quick growth of children, those extra few months of growth will almost certainly get you noticed as a brighter star than the smaller children you’re facing. Hence, being born early in the year gives you dramatically better odds of being moved forward to better training, which makes it more likely you become more skilled and can advance to more advanced training, etc. As a result, he argues with logical sense that, if you want to be a pro hockey player, you’re best move is to be born as early in January as possible.

For the example of luck vs. innate skill, he uses the early life of Bill Gates as an example. Bill Gates went to a school that just so happened to have one of the few computers available for experimenting outside a business or university setting. In addition, this computer allowed for multiple people to program on the computer at the same time. This chance allowed for Bill and any of the other students to put in as much time on the computer as they could, which they did — right up until the money to operate the thing ran out. Here again, luck prevailed. There wasn’t any way to raise more money to pay for the computer to function (it was networked to another computer that billed heavily for the use, IIRC), so he decided he knew enough to go to the University of Washington and use their computer during off-hours, which he was able to do as the place was in walking distance of his house. In addition, he was able to bluff his way into an internship writing new programming for a power company’s billing software.

So, rather than being some innate computer whiz, Bill Gates was just exceedingly fortunate in that he had early access to multiple computers which allowed him to practice programming for an unheard-of amount of time. By the fortune of these chances, he was then in a unique position to profit on his skills when the personal computer revolution hit. 

There are more anecdotes toward this end in the book. I found the most interesting one to be about the inability of Koreans to make successful pilots rather fascinating. Basically, for a good chunk of the 70s and 80s, Korean Air had the worst safety record in the business of flying. Their record became so atrocious that Canada and the United States had started taking steps to revoke their right to fly over their airspace. As this was becoming a crisis, the brass of Korean Air hired outsiders to look into their practices, and an interesting fact turned up. Of all the crashes their planes were involved in, the crew turned out to have known the trouble spots, but failed to explicitly tell their captain what was happening. What ends up happening is that the subordinate Korean cabin crew, not wanting to overstep their bounds, “suggest” things to the captain, hoping he’ll pick up on their cues and look into whatever warrants his attention. However, even with their very lives potentially on the line, they won’t go much farther than these suggestions and hints about the proper course of action. If the captain is too distracted, he often misses these points entirely, and then a catastrophe happens.

That particular story does have a happy ending. The airline hires some outsiders to come into their company, who dictate that all cabin communication happens in English to avoid these misunderstandings based on the “demure” nature of the native Korean language in regards to authority. This, as well as other reforms, have turned Korean Air into one of the safest fliers in the world.

It was an good book, with (in my mind) a pretty obvious premise, but one that is presented with enough backup to make the thesis intuitive going forward. I give it a solid three stars.

John Brown: Abolitionist by David Reynolds 

This book takes on the monumental task of trying to decide if John Brown was just some terrorist or a genuine crusader against evil. It comes down, rightly in my mind, on the side of the latter.

John Brown is not just an anti-slavery man, but he’s an active universal suffragist (for blacks, natives, and women), as well as an active integrationist. He doesn’t simply advocate the eradication of slavery, but also feels that blacks should have every right to public education, property, and every other right enjoyed by white people. More to the shock of most of his contemporaries, he puts these beliefs into practice. He establishes a small free labor farm in New York where his family, as well as several free black families, share in the everyday labors of the farm, and he even goes so far as to allow them to eat dinner in his house, at the same table as his own. 

To the author’s credit, he does what must have been some exhausting research on John Brown’s life. There’s a good three decades of active work on John Brown’s part toward forwarding his hatred of slavery — he was an active member of the Underground Railroad, an active anti-slavery murderer, and an active slave-freer. At one point, in disgust of some pro-slavery murders in Kansas, he sneaks into Missouri, and then frees a dozen slaves, personally taking them on the thousand mile trek to freedom in Canada.

The author does a good job of painting how Brown was moved into his increasing agitation regarding the slavery question. His own father believed in equality for all, and raised young John among natives and blacks, without regard to how the other whites around him would react. One of the defining moments in his childhood was when he was passing through town with his dad and saw a slave-owner mercilessly beat a black child. At that point, the seed of his hatred was sown.

Sown, but it was not his primary purpose. His main priority was providing for his growing family (the man ended up having twenty kids, several of which died fighting slavery). Here an interesting mark of John Brown’s character is exposed. The man is a horrible, HORRIBLE businessman, and practically every venture he’s a part of fails. But, in a testament to his character, he never alienates the people who give him his loans. They get frustrated with the lack of returns on their money, as well as the eventual outright losses that they endure, but they all believe him to be a man of extraordinary character, and don’t bear his failure to repay personally (several of his backers keep putting money into the man, when any sane person would have cut their losses long before). However, he can’t stop himself from getting into a horrible cycle of taking one loan to pay off another, and after many failed business attempts he declares bankruptcy. 

During his financial failures, there are a growing number of incidents which push him toward further and further extremism regarding slavery. The beginning of his crusade occurs in 1837, when an abolitionist editor named Elijah Lovejoy is murdered by a pro-slavery mob. In a meeting which follows, JB publicly declares he will do what is necessary to destroy slavery. He’s an active conductor on the Underground Railroad at this point, and he takes an intense interest in the thoughts of his passengers, hosting them at his own table, when he can do so. These experiences seem to confirm in him a complete sense of rights and equality between the races, and he subsequently informs blacks of his biggest plans to hear their ideas on them. Indeed, it is from the black community that he receives his earliest encouragement for the eventual raid on Harper’s Ferry.

As the political situation regarding slavery deteriorates in Washington, Brown becomes more and more fixated on raiding Harper’s Ferry. As the slavery question keeps coming up in the national scene, Brown becomes increasingly disgusted with Northern politicians, who, in his mind, are giving up the side of right by compromising with the evil slaveholders. He sees that, far from the expected, “slavery will go away on its own right,” the years are making the institution stronger than ever. Brown was never a rich man, but he increasingly snatches up books on slave rebellions and guerrilla warfare. His plan, hatched decades before his eventual attempt, is to raid Harper’s Ferry, seize as many guns as possible, free as many slaves as possible, and then run a Spartacus-style rebellion out of the Appalachians, using the mountains for a safe refuge from their periodic strikes at Southern plantations. His hope is to inspire such a long-lasting slave rebellion that the South gives up its slave rather than live in constant terror for keeping them.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

While Brown had been working on the Underground Railroad, and working his racial harmony village in New York, the situation in Kansas had deteriorated into a shooting war. Now, his plan had been to enact his Harper’s plan at this point, but his black neighbors convinced him he could accomplish more in Kansas, so he and a few of his sons went.

Because of popular sovereignty, Kansas was being flooded by pro and anti slavery people with the hopes of swaying the territory’s status one way or the other. The pro-slavery people had no qualms about using violence and intimidation to further their aims, while the anti-slavery people just wanted to win at the ballet box. John Brown arrived in this environment, and quickly grew disgusted by the anti-slavery people. At one point, Lawrence, was one of the biggest anti-slavery towns in Kansas. The pro-slavery forces assembled a group of 800 men, and stormed into the town, hellbent on a fight. Without firing a shot, the townsfolk sheepishly handed over their stores of weapons and largely ran away, despite having built a functional earthworks around their town. This cowardice (along with the fresh news of the “Sumner/Brooks Debate”) made Brown furious, and he decided he would have nothing to do with it. He did what he could to round up like-minded people such as himself, and was able to assemble a band of about twenty fighters to work on evening the score (including his several children he had with him, though they were young adults by now).

A force of pro-slavery men had rounded up a group of abolitionists and shot them whilst they were unarmed and defenseless. This attack convinced Brown that violence must be answered with violence, and the Pottawattamie massacre followed, where five men sympathetic to slavery were snatched from their homes late in the night, and hacked to death by broadswords (a weapon Brown favored, because it was one that slaves were capable of using in their rebellions). Later, Brown would fight a stalling action with a pro-slavery band bent on attacking more abolitionist towns and people. Outnumbered seven to one, his group would inflict sixty casualties on the enemy before retreating, losing only one of their own in the process.

The latter battle would make Brown famous in the abolitionist circles of the North. Finally, the abolitionists had someone they could point to as a brave man fighting their cause. When the situation in Kansas cooled down, Brown went on a speaking tour in the Northeast, trying to raise money for his pet project, though saying the money would be to defeat slavery. He speaks throughout North, and in New England gets introduced among the Transcendentalist circles, which he takes by storm. Thoreau and Emerson are immediately taken with the man, whose intense vision strikes them immediately, and they send him on his way with great fanfare and applause (and a paltry $10). 

On this point, and it’s my biggest criticism in the book, 50-75 pages could have been trimmed by substituting the phrase, “While the moral support of Northern abolitionists was immense, their fiscal support amounted to a pittance, with continued promises for more.” Brown’s view of abolitionists continued to sink, as he felt they were far more suited to talking about the evils of slavery than actually doing something about it.

So, after a long period of fundraising and hobnobbing, he finally confers with a congress of freed black people. He informs these people of his Harper plan, and they give it their full endorsement and support. 

The actual raid on Harper’s is comparatively insignificant to its aftermath. The highlights are that the first person killed happens to be a black man, and one of the saddest casualties is the mayor of Harper’s, who’s loved by both the whites and blacks in town. John Brown loses two sons in the raid, although they managed to hold off a force of over 800 militia men with just twenty men for over a day. But, the raid is stopped, and Brown and his surviving men are taken prisoner.

In a curious hiccup, the governor of Virginia, as well as several other people involved, publicly state to the press that they are impressed with Brown’s courage in all of this. They seem puzzled by the idea that someone of such deep anti-slavery sentiment could rise above a spineless piece of shit.

Anyways, the trial is a fiasco. Brown is charged with multiple murders as well as treason against Virginia. The scene actually sounds kind of funny — the court is packed with up to five hundred people, who are smoking and spitting tobacco, and also eating peanuts during the proceeding, casting their shells onto the courtroom floor. As the trial goes on, any movement produces a sharp crunching noise of peanut shells. Ignoring the noise from the peanut gallery, the lawyers do their wrangling, but Brown stymies his lawyer’s efforts to get him off with an insanity plea. Brown is found guilty on all counts, and sentenced to death. He then submits to the court one final message:

Had I interfered in the manner which I admit, and which I admit has been fairly proved (for I admire the truthfulness and candor of the greater portion of the witnesses who have testified in this case), had I so interfered in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, the so-called great, or in behalf of any of their friends, either father, mother, brother, sister, wife, or children, or any of that class, and suffered and sacrificed what I have in this interference, it would have been all right; and every man in this court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment.

This court acknowledges, as I suppose, the validity of the law of God. I see a book kissed here which I suppose to be the Bible, or at least the New Testament. That teaches me that all things whatsoever I would that men should do to me, I should do even so to them. It teaches me, further, to “remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them.” I endeavored to act up to that instruction. I say, I am yet too young to understand that God is any respecter of persons. I believe that to have interfered as I have done as I have always freely admitted I have done in behalf of His despised poor, was not wrong, but right. Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I submit; so let it be done!” 

Brown’s composure and bravery during the trial and upon the gallows causes him to transcend his own existence and become a major symbol to both North and South. To the North, he is a man who violated man’s law in service to God’s law. He killed, he murdered, but he did so on behalf of millions who have no protector or savior. His death he offers freely to service the end that he gave his life to pursuing, that all men, everywhere, should be free. To the South, he became a different symbol, the embodiment of the abolitionist conspiracy to destroy slavery and unleash the Demon Negro in the South. Indeed, the aftermath of Harper’s showed the South terrified of what might be unleashed within its borders, as people began expelling any outsider from the South — Northern salesmen were tarred and feathered, and people who were strangers to Southern towns were sometimes butchered and hanged. The death of John Brown managed to unite largely disparate abolitionist factions, as well as cement support for successionists in the South. In his life, he fought for slaves and against slavery. In his death, he polarized the country toward making sure the issue would be settled once and for all.

As he was being led to the gallows, he passed his jailer a note, his final statement on the slavery question:

“I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. I had, as I now think, vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done.” 

This was a great book. It showed very well how John Brown was well ahead of the curve with race relations, as well as delved into his own thinking behind his actions in many of the momentous events in which he was involved. Brown was a Calvinist, and truly believed his was following a path God laid out for him, “before the Earth was made.” His conduct after the raid became such an inspiration to the Transcendentalists that he was essentially deified by the North, and his example inspired thousands of Union soldiers as they marched to battle with “John Brown’s Body” on their lips. His raid became so politicized that it helped destroy the Democratic Party, which allowed Lincoln to win the election. The man fought for his beliefs, and in doing so set in motion the events which caused the Civil War. The book ties everything wonderfully together, and, despite the long-winded nature of certain sections, I’m going to give this my first five star rating, with the caveat that it might not be a masterpiece of literature, but it is a masterpiece of historic literature.


Posted January 31, 2012 by fatmoron in Uncategorized

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