Readings: Margaret Atwood and Jared Diamond

Margaret Atwood on the people banning her book The Handmaid’s Tale; Jared Diamond on the earthquake in Turkey and Syria, and long-term disaster planning.

Margaret Atwood, The Atlantic, 12 Feb 2023: Go Ahead and Ban My Book, subtitled “To those who seek to stop young people from reading The Handmaid’s Tale: Good luck with that. It’ll only make them want to read it more.”

A familiar lesson, which conservatives cannot seem to learn. Ban something, and you create a desire for it. (Similar to the Streisand effect.) Atwood begins:

It’s shunning time in Madison County, Virginia, where the school board recently banished my novel The Handmaid’s Tale from the shelves of the high-school library. I have been rendered “unacceptable.” Governor Glenn Youngkin enabled such censorship last year when he signed legislation allowing parents to veto teaching materials they perceive as sexually explicit.

This episode is perplexing to me, in part because my book is much less sexually explicit than the Bible, and I doubt the school board has ordered the expulsion of that. Possibly, the real motive lies elsewhere. The conservative Christian group Focus on the Family generated the list of “unacceptable” books that reportedly inspired the school board’s action, and at least one member of the public felt the school board was trying to “limit what kids can read” based on religious views. Could it be that the board acted under the mistaken belief that The Handmaid’s Tale is anti-Christian?

Atwood goes on about how the inspiration for her book was partly biblical. Matthew 7:15 and Genesis 30. She makes a good point about why the clergy, centuries ago, didn’t want ordinary people to read the Bible.

The Church had good reason for wanting to limit Bible-reading (in Latin) to the clergy. Limbo and purgatory weren’t in it, nor was the catalog of saints or the notion of marriage as a sacrament, among other key teachings. But John Wycliffe, William Tyndale, and their continental counterparts translated the Bible into vernacular languages and enabled cheap copies of it to be printed. As people learned to read in ever larger numbers, they read the Bible, and the result was a proliferation of different interpretations. Baptists, Lutherans, Calvinists, Presbyterians, Mennonites, and Methodists are all the descendants of this biblical big bang. Approximately three centuries of bitter and destructive religious wars followed, as well as massacres, excommunications, widespread heresy trials, witchcraft panics, and burnings at the stake, with the usual nasty human-warfare raping, looting, and pillaging stuff thrown in.

That’s one reason the authors of the United States Constitution framed the First Amendment as they did. It stipulates that Congress shall not make any law that establishes a state religion or prohibits the free exercise of an individual’s own faith. Who wanted the homicidal uproar that had gone on in Europe for so long?

She goes on with a history of new communication technologies (books, radio, comic books, TV, streaming services) and their disruption of old establishments, and subsequent efforts to regulate them, with examples from all those media. And an interesting potted history of literature: Chaucer wrote when few could read, so he could write anything; by Shakespeare’s time a state censor had been installed, so he had to be inventive with his characters cursing. She circles back around to the motivations of the Madison Country school board, wondering about their motives, perhaps sarcastically, and concluding,

I don’t know what its inner motives may be. Possibly, it has a public-spirited aim. It may have noted the falling birth rate and the surveys showing that young people are losing interest in sex. No sex equals no babies, unless everyone resorts to test tubes. Has sex become too readily available? Banal, even? A boring chore? If so, what better way to make it fascinating again than to prohibit all mention of it? Don’t read about sex! Don’t think about sex! See no sex, hear no sex, speak no sex! Suddenly, the kids want to explore! “Stolen water is sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant” (Proverbs 9:17). If that’s the school board’s game, well played! Virginia may even get more babies out of it.

How dare I question the school board’s motives? I do dare. After all, it has questioned mine.


Jared Diamond, NY Times, 13 Feb 2023: Like Finland, Imagine Everything That Could Go Wrong

Curious title, but it makes sense once you read the essay. Recall that Diamond wrote one of the classic nonfiction books of the 20th century, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies in 1997, and a sequel of sorts called Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed in 2004. So what is this essay about? The earthquake in Turkey and Syria.

Diamond begins,

Each day, the reported death toll from the earthquake in Turkey and Syria grows. It’s not just a local tragedy killing people far away. Natural disasters have struck, and will strike, around the world — including in the United States. What are their repercussions? What lessons can be learned from them?

Perhaps the most salient is this: Bad luck is inevitable and we must anticipate and prepare for it.

Diamond goes through many examples but they boil down to the wisdom of long-term thinking and advance planning, in the spirit of Ari Wallach’s LONGPATH (review here), and which is specifically lacking among American conservatives who are either too selfish to take measures that might inconvenience them today to benefit people in the future, or whose instinctive distrust of government and any kind of expertise leads them to dismiss warnings of potential future disasters as some kind of hoaxes.

Finland offers a model of preparing politically for any disaster. During World War II, Finns suffered greatly as a result of being cut off from imports. Finns responded after the war by setting up a government commission that meets once a month, imagines everything that could go wrong and each month plans and prepares for one such disaster. (A Finnish friend of mine is on that commission.) Finns are now prepared for chemical shortages, fuel shortages, medical supply shortages, an electric net failure and other eventualities.

Another example of how, despite MAGA patriots’ claims, American is not actually the bestest at everything in the world.

Psychiatrists use the term “paranoia” to mean constant exaggerated fear of something going wrong. Many non-Finns, and many of my Los Angeles friends, consider Finns’ and my outlook on life as an absurd vice, verging on paranoia. I consider our outlook as a healthy virtue that I call constructive paranoia. In other words, be ready for lots of bad luck.

Nations, and individuals, should practice constructive paranoia. Some already do. Among countries, examples besides Finland include Vietnam, which was ready to respond instantly when Covid emerged; and Australia, sensitized by long experience of droughts, fires and floods. The governments of those three countries had most likely learned from previous disasters.

And finally, back to Syria and Turkey, and concluding,

What about Turkey and Syria? Syria finds itself in an especially cruel situation. … The area is in revolt against the national government. While other countries and nongovernmental organizations may provide short-term help, long-term solutions are unlikely until Syria has regained national unity.

Turkey, on the other hand, has an effective national government. The thousands of Turks who died in the past week were viewed by their government as Turkish citizens, not as rebels. Turkey has a history of many recent earthquakes, of which the current one was “merely” the worst.

Perhaps the earthquake will motivate not only Turkey, but also other countries. What’s true for earthquakes also holds for pandemics and other threats: anticipate and prepare. After SARS and MERS, the world should have anticipated more such emerging diseases. But we didn’t, and the result was millions of unnecessary deaths from Covid. Will the world be ready for the inevitable next pandemic? Will Turkey be ready for the inevitable next earthquake?

I notice that, despite the Turkish government’s announcement last year that their country would like to be called Türkiye, pronounced with an extra syllable at the end, the New York Times, which maintains a rigorous style-sheet, has not yet adopted this new spelling.

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