Tuesday, July 17, 2018

An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States, by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

Today I'm looking at a history book by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz that seeks to redress the problem of Native Americans, (alternately called American Indians, the First Peoples, or Indigenous Peoples), who are largely written out of standard American history and when they are included at all it is an entirely inadequate representation of the peoples and cultures. This book is not an exhaustive exploration of the indigenous people who lived in the United States. That would be a difficult if not impossible task for a number of reasons including a scarcity of surviving written and archaeological records, often wantonly destroyed by European colonialists, and because the sheer number of Indigenous nations that populated the modern United States. This book focuses largely, instead, on the policy of the Anglo-American settlers starting with the colonies of Jamestown and Plymouth going into the twenty-first century. Dunbar-Ortiz makes a compelling argument that the United States has, and continues to pursue, a policy of genocide against American Indians through a variety of methods and provides suggestions on how to remedy this state of affairs.

Throughout this book Dunbar-Ortiz utilizes the definitions of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide as her rubric for defining genocide. Although most people usually associate genocide with the wholesale killing of members of an ethnic group or religion, such as in the Holocaust, the UN Convention includes within its definition the forced transfer of children out of an ethnic group, preventing births within the group, and imposing conditions of hardship on groups calculated to bring about their destruction. Although she uses the term retroactively from its creation, by the modern definition the actions of European colonials from their first contact with American Indians matches the textbook definition of genocide.

Dunbar-Ortiz catalogues the methods utilized by European colonists from the overt to the more insidious as a series of tools utilized through five centuries to wage an ongoing genocide against indigenous peoples. Regular warfare, smallpox, liquor, and the practices of head-hunting and scalping factor heavily in the early years of European contact with American Indians. The only point of concern I actually had at this point was Dunbar-Ortiz's assertion that smallpox could not have killed 90% of the population of the Americas. The current historical consensus is that the total population for the Americas was as high as 100 million people, but around 90% of those died of diseases carried by Europeans that American Indians had no resistance to. Smallpox is often pointed to as the biggest, but blame is also assigned to diseases such as measles, typhoid, diptheria, and pertussis which could have had equally high mortality rates. Dunbar-Ortiz argues it's highly improbable that diseases could have wiped out such a great chunk of the population, but admits that they had their effect. Obviously the evidence available to historians is highly fragmentary so a definitive answer is unlikely.

Aside from the obvious methods utilized by Europeans, Dunbar-Ortiz explores some of the less overt but equally deadly methods Anglo-Americans used to try and wipe out indigenous nations. She places a good deal of emphasis on trade, where natives could provide goods (usually pelts) to whites, and whites would offer food, tools, clothing, firearms, and most dangerously liquor in exchange. By replacing traditional crafts with European-manufactured goods, whites made native communities dependent on trade for their continued survival, providing a powerful lever against native communities. This became even more overt with the American reservation system where many natives were dependent on government supplies to provide food, clothing, and other basic necessities just to survive.

Another horrific practice was the means of ''educating'' native peoples ranging from the Spanish mission system to the infamous Indian Academies of the United States, typified by Carlisle. In these cases young children were ripped away from their families and sent to live in distant boarding schools. Their hair was cut, they were forbidden from speaking in their native tongue or practicing their own religions, and severely beaten for any infractions. This was a concentrated effort by Europeans to force natives to adapt to the dominant Anglo-American culture and did untold damage to the life of native communities in the United States.

Even as recently as the mid-twentieth centuries there have been attempts by the American government to renege on agreements with Native American nations, many of whom had sovereign status recognized in treaties signed with the United States government. Native communities have resisted such efforts to strip them of their rights, but obviously with mixed results. Even issues as recent as the Dakota Access Pipeline underscore the struggle Indian communities still face when dealing with the federal and state governments. However, because there are only around five million American Indians in the United States (making approximately 1.6% of the population), it is unlikely they alone will be able to force change. Dunbar-Ortiz says that it will require African-Americans, Hispanics, and Euro-Americans to cooperate as allies for American Indian communities and allow native voices to be heard. American Indians will speak for themselves, but it's the rest of us that have to be willing to listen.

On a final note, I thought it was interesting in how Dunbar-Ortiz talks about the American Army and how it owes its existence to the need of the American Government to kill Indians and make room for European colonization. The oldest units of the American Army can trace their origins to units in the Regular Army whose ''peacetime'' purpose was to expand the frontier and kill and control Indians. Dunbar-Ortiz even illustrates how the American colonial project, the expansion and domination of the North American continent, made use of colonial troops in the guise of the Buffalo Soldiers, African-Americans enlisted in the regular army and deployed in the Western Frontier to fight Indians. To this day, the American Army refers to territory behind enemy lines as ''Indian Country'', part of the Army's institutional heritage fighting native nations.

I definitely think this book is worth a read because of how Dunbar-Ortiz shifts the perspective and provides an in-depth explanation of how American colonialism continues to affect native communities.

- Kalpar

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Darth Bane: Path of Destruction, by Drew Karpyshyn

So as you probably realized I've been listening to a lot of books from the Star Wars expanded universe, mostly from the new canon, and I had been feeling kind of disappointed with the results. So I decided to go back and look at a book from the old canon that I remember as being mostly good and see if my tastes had changed or if the books were as good as I remembered. I will say this book seemed pretty okay, if nothing particularly special. I think that's partly because this jumps outside of the movie canon going back to a thousand years before the Battle of Yavin so it doesn't have the baggage associated with the movies.

This book, as you can probably guess, is the start of a series about Darth Bane, who reforged the the Sith order and established the Rule of Two. This book starts with Dessel, a miner trapped on a company-controlled planet digging for cortosis ore that the Republic needs to build armor during the seemingly interminable war against the Sith Empire. Dessel and many other Outer Rim residents have little use for the Republic which doesn't really care what happens as long as the resources continue flow towards the Core. After killing a Republic trooper in self-defense, Dessel chooses to flee and join the Sith Empire as a regular footsoldier. But it's soon discovered that Dessel has an affinity for the Force and he is recruited to join the ranks of the Brotherhood of Darkness.

The book focuses mostly on Bane and his path to becoming the ultimate Dark Lord of the Sith, as well as his conflict with the leadership of the Brotherhood of Darkness. I thought it was interesting to watch how Bane develops as a character and grows in the dark side, opposed to how Luke or many other characters developed on the light side of the Force. It's not a lot to write home about, but I thought it was okay.

Something I wish this book had expanded on more, and maybe we'll see more of in the later books, was the Jedi order at this time. The book focuses a lot on the Sith Order and the Sith forces but doesn't delve a lot into the Jedi order or the Republic forces. In fact, we don't really see the Republic or any Jedi until the last third of the book or so. I think it would be more interesting to see the contrast between the Jedi and the Sith when the galaxy is in open war between the two factions before the Sith go into hiding. It's also interesting that Jedi are going around calling themselves Lord which seems counter to Jedi ideology, so I'd like to see how the Jedi order changed over a thousand years.

Overall I think this book was pretty okay and I'm willing to go check out the other books within this sub-series. I'll have to see if it has the same issues that other parts of the canon have had that I've noticed recently.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Makers and Takers, by Rana Foroohar

Today I'm looking at another book about economics, Makers and Takers, which criticizes the stock market as it currently exists as well as the state of the U.S. economy and seeks to explain how we've gotten to the condition where we are now and where a majority of the population thinks, not unfairly, that the system is rigged against them. Foroohar blames the developments in the American economy on the process of financialization, where the main markers of success are quarterly earnings and stock prices. Company earnings are spent on dividends and stock buybacks which profit the wealthiest percentage of the United States who own the majority of corporate securities. Meanwhile investment in R&D, company infrastructure, and staff wages continue to shrink. On top of this the financial sector, which produces only 4% of the jobs in the United States, consumes 25% of the corporate profits. Foroohar argues that if the United States is to become an economic powerhouse once again we need to invest in people and research, rather than in stock prices.

The name of the book comes from an idea coined by Republicans in the early 2010s. Republicans such as Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney divided the country into two classes, the makers who work and pay taxes, and the takers who Romney described as ''...dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that's an entitlement. And the government should give it to them.''

Foroohar takes this narrative and flips it on its head, arguing that the makers are the 90-95% of the population who live and work in the real economy are the real makers who produce goods and services that make the economy function, while the takers are the wealthy top percent of the country, which is hard to disagree with when the wealthiest 5% in the country control 67% of the country's wealth. This is aided by our financial system that focuses on taking money out of American companies and transferring it into the already bloated wealth of the 1%. Not only is the American dream at risk, but the future of American democracy as well.

Foroohar focuses on a process she calls financialization, where finance has come to dominate the economy and making money becomes an end in and of itself. This affects not only the finance industry but other parts of the American industry as well. She assigns a significant part of the blame to the financial sector itself, which she argues should not be a dominant industry in and of itself, but a means to allocate capital and resources to other industries. She points out that while the finance sector accounts for only 4% of the jobs in the United States, it accounts for 25% of the corporate profits. However these profits are generated by moving money around and turning it into more money, opposed to producing goods and services consumed by the majority of Americans. Foroohar argues that the financial sector has become a parasite on the American economy, draining money and talent into an area of the economy that ultimately produces nothing.

Foroohar also blames the domination of American companies by accountants who focused on the company's bottom line and reducing all the company's processes to numbers. Foroohar traces this back to Robert MacNamara and the ''Whiz Kids'', who became known as the beancounters and dominated Ford and other American companies opposed to the car guys and other innovators who had previously dominated American business. While the car guys were focused on producing the best cars possible for market, the beancounters were concerned with one thing, and one thing only, the bottom line. The beancounters would try to squeeze as much profit from as many sources as possible. Rather than whatever material was best for the job at hand, the beancounters would choose whatever was cheapest. Foroohar argues that this actually had a negative effect on American business by reducing quality and standards of American products resulting in disasters such as the infamous Edsel and Ford Pinto. This weakening of American industry left it vulnerable to foreign competition.

Foroohar's arguments are strongly compelling and suggest that American business's priorities have been skewed towards short-term profits rather than long-term sustainable growth. If America is to become a place where all of us can thrive, there will have to be serious changes in how America does business. Whether that will be accomplished remains questionable, but I think this book is worth reading.

- Kalpar

Thursday, July 5, 2018

A Long Reign, by Victoria L. Szulc

Today I'm looking at A Long Reign, a book I picked up some time ago in one of the numerous kindle book deals that I see on Amazon. The book starts with an interesting premise, the world is ruled by an immortal Queen Victoria whose armies conquered North America after both sides had been exhausted by the Civil War. Lavinia James, a girl from the farmlands of Missouri, joins the Underground resistance to fight the redcoat armies, topple Victoria, and restore the world to its proper timeline.

As I said, the book started with an interesting premise, but unfortunately there is a lot that's wrong with this book. The result is it feels like a very, very rough first draft that desperately needed an editor to go through and help knock off the rough edges and polish it up. The writing just doesn't flow well and sometimes gets downright confusing so it definitely could have used a second set of eyes to improve it. This book also relies heavily on sex as drama and ordinarily am not a huge fan of that being done in fiction. This book has attempted rape, actual rape, and Lavinia having to seduce other people as an agent of the Underground and hates herself for doing it, so sex causes a lot of the drama in this book and because the writing is so rough it makes it very hard for me to read personally.

There are also a lot of plot points that don't make sense which makes this book feel even more like a rough draft. I assume that Dr. Carthage and Ebersol replaced Victoria with a humanoid robot but what they hoped to accomplish by doing this isn't made clear. They seem to be in control of the Empire but what they're planning on doing with the empire doesn't make a lot of sense. It's implied that they're strip-mining the entire earth for resources and creating an army of robots made from human bones and skin, but to what purpose remains unclear. I mean, once you've killed everyone on earth and have your own army of robots and a pile of all the world's resources, now what? Are you going to colonize Mars? If Szulc explained what the villains were trying to accomplish maybe it'd make more sense, but as the book is it's like they're being evil just to be evil.

And this doesn't get on the political and economic situation. At least in Missouri it seems like a large portion of the population has been enslaved to harvest farm produce that gets shipped off...elsewhere for the good of the Empire while they're controlled by the British garrison of soldiers. Now there's a point where they separate the men and women in the slave camps and say the slaves aren't allowed to reproduce anymore because it means more mouths to feed. So the slaves are separated. And then the garrison announces that the men need female companionship so once a year they'll select from the women who have reached maturity to serve as wives or paramours. Which implies that the soldiers will be reproducing because they'll be having sex with the slave women, which therefore defeats the purpose of keeping the slaves from reproducing in the first place. And even before the slaves start being harvested for skin and bones, the British keep working their slaves to death and bringing in more slaves from elsewhere. It just doesn't make sense to me and tells me that this book definitely needed an editor.

The result is a book that desperately needed an editor to help put it into shape. There are some ideas with potential, but the book feels very much like a rough first draft which could be expanded, edited, and improved. As the book is right now, I unfortunately can't say that it's worth reading.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Tarkin, by James Luceno

Today I'm looking at yet another book in the new Star Wars canon, Tarkin, apparently because I'm a sucker for punishment. Or I'm just desperate for something to listen to from the library. Bit of column A, bit of column B. As you can probably guess, this book focuses on Wilhuff Tarkin about five years after the events of Revenge of the Sith. This book bothers me like a lot of the rest of the new canon because it drags the Rebellion down to the level of the Empire and creates a sort of moral equivalency between the two. In a way I find it rather ironic because when Disney first bought Star Wars everyone was concerned that the franchise would be, well, Disneyfied and made lighter and softer. But instead it seems like they've gone in the opposite direction and I don't know if I really like that change in the Star Wars universe. Star Wars as a universe has always been fairly black and white, which I'll admit has been to its detriment at time, but I feel like we're going too far in the other way whihc is making Star Wars...well...not Star Wars.

The reason I bring this up is because in this book we once again have a band of rebels who fall more heavily on the terrorist side of the freedom fighter/terrorist spectrum. And while I don't oppose the idea that the Rebellion wasn't entirely filled with pure, good, innocent people like Luke Skywalker. After all, Han Solo didn't exactly start as good person when he signed up for the Rebellion. The problem is that in the new expanded canon, we seem to be moving towards all factions of the Rebellion being ideological extremists. The flip side of this is that the Empire also gets more humanized which, again, is fine, but when the Empire is regularly committing atrocities such as blowing up planets and people think this is fair and necessary it really undermines the idea that people in the Empire aren't terrible. Ultimately I feel like the new canon is dragging both the Rebellion and the Empire to a level of them being shades of grey and it just feels wrong for Star Wars. But I'm willing to accept that I'm part of the old-school fandom who probably wouldn't have been happy regardless of what Disney did.

The majority of this book focuses on Tarkin and Darth Vader doing what almost amounts to a buddy cop story. The Emperor sends them to investigate a rebel plot and ultimately Tarkin's special ship Carrion Spike gets stolen by rebels so Vader and Tarkin have to get it back. Which weirdly results in Tarkin doing a lot of detective work to figure out who the rebels who stole his ship are, where they're going to strike next, and how to stop them. I'm not sure if this is supposed to be an homage to the fact that Peter Cushing played Sherlock Holmes in a Hammer Horror adaptation of Hound of the Baskervilles and in a 60's TV adaptation, but I'm going to pretend that it is. I don't know if it really makes sense for Tarkin to be a great detective, but I'm willing to at least roll with it.

But the other personality traits and abilities they give Tarkin don't really hold up. Especially with him being a crack fighter pilot. I say he's a crack fighter pilot because there's a part of the book where he flies an old-school V-wing Starfighter in a dogfight and manages to keep pace with Vader. Now I consulted with several old-school fans who agreed with me that this was a feat of flying which would require a pilot on the level of Wedge Antilles or Soontir Fel. So while Tarkin might not have racked up enough fighter kills to be counted as an ace, he certainly has the skills to be a crack pilot. And it just...it doesn't work for Tarkin.

At the risk of going all Plinkett on you, Tarkin always struck me as a political bigwig with connections that enabled him to reach a position of influence. Probably someone from a core world with all the benefits of the upper classes to help ease his ascent into the command ranks. Tarkin seemed the sort of person who would be truly comfortable on the command deck of a Star Destroyer, marshaling a fleet, but would be incredibly out of place in the cockpit of a starfighter. It's just a weird thing that stood out among the other things in Tarkin's backstory that seem so at odds with the character as I knew him from the original Star Wars. Again, I'm probably being an old fuddy-duddy who's upset over the replacement of the old canon but I feel like there are some legitimate complaints against the new canon to make.

Ultimately I don't know if this book really works well. Tarkin gets a backstory and abilities, some of which mesh with the cruel administrator who advocates rule through fear, and some which just leave me confused. This book doesn't build on the canon in any meaningful way, and I don't think we really needed to explore why Tarkin believed rule through fear was the way to handle the galaxy. I think this book can be safely skipped, even by the most diehard fans of the canon, old and new.

- Kalpar

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Henry Clay: The Essential American, by David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler

Today I'm looking at a biography of Henry Clay, one of the most prominent statesmen of the early American Republic. With John C. Calhoun and Daniel Webster, Henry Clay formed a triumvirate that represented the political and sectional differences of the United States. For nearly forty years they held positions of high office in the United States and held the country together. When the three giants died in the early 1850's, America was aware that it was the end of an age and it would only be a few years until the Slaveholders' Rebellion would tear the nation apart. But even in his dying days Clay labored to keep the country together.

Clay had a long and varied career, serving in the House of Representatives, becoming Speaker, being a commissioner in Ghent that formed the treaty that ended the War of 1812, Secretary of State, and finally Senator. Clay left an indelible mark on the United States both metaphorically and very literally with actions such as the Missouri Compromise of 1820. Clay's most enduring power was to marshal votes, create majorities, and form a consensus despite the incredibly fluid nature of American politics. Despite there being only one or two political parties during Clay's lifetime a person's political ideas were less likely to be dependent on party and more likely to depend on geographic location and economic background. So it was probably easier for Clay to form bipartisan measures in his era than in our own.

Clay's most enduring project was what he called the American System, a program that would promote American development through a variety of measures. Specifically Clay advocated for a protective tariff to stimulate American industry, internal improvements including canals, roads, and later railroads to stimulate trade, and a central bank to ensure a stable currency. Clay made some progress with at least the tariff and funding internal improvements but due to the rise of Jacksonian democracy Clay never succeeded in creating a central bank and reforms to banking would have to wait until Salmon P. Chase's tenure as Secretary of the Treasury.

I think the most frustrating thing about Henry Clay is he spent a lifetime perched on the fence in regards to slavery and perhaps no other person than Clay personally represented the dilemma America faced. Clay owned slaves and personally detested the institution of slavery, but also opposed the platform of abolition and immediate emancipation. Clay spent a lifetime as president of the American Colonization Society, an organization that sought to neatly solve the problem of slavery by gradually emancipating slaves and sending them back to somewhere in Africa and completely sidestepping the issue of racial relations in the United States. Colonization as a plan was never practical for a variety of problems. First, colonization never attracted sufficient money to emancipate and transport slaves in any practical means, so it remained a minor solution at best. Second, the timeline for emancipation and colonization was theoretical at best, inevitably pushing the problem to some later date when increases in population would make slavery unnecessary. Finally, colonization never took the opinions of the slaves themselves into consideration either. African-Americans, all of whom at this point were born in America, knew nothing about Africa and had no desire to be sent there and they had no desire to be sent anywhere else. The Colonization Society perfectly matched Clay's attitudes on slavery, an attempt to ignore the problem and hope to solve it at some later date while it grew to be a problem that almost tore the country apart.

Clay is an interesting individual and was at the center of every political issue during the first half of the nineteenth century, even with his individual failings. If you seek to understand politics of the early Republic and the antebellum era, this is an excellent book to read.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Empire's End, by Chuck Wendig

Today I'm finishing the Aftermath trilogy with the book Empire's End and in coming to the end I'm still left with more questions than answers. I get the feeling that I went into this series with completely wrong expectations because I was hoping to at least get some more explanation on issues, the biggest one being WHERE THE HECK DID SNOKE COME FROM?! This question has been vexing me and my friends for some time, moreso after Last Jedi came out, and even the expanded universe has been incapable of answering that question. This book does finally, partway answer the question of where the First Order came from but I feel like the books weren't worth the ultimate effort.

As I mentioned in my review of Life Debt, a lot of this focus is also on the relationships of characters such as Norra and Temmin Wexley, Jas Emari, and Sinjir Rath Velus. However it's difficult for me to get invested in the series for a couple of reasons. The first is the lack of emotional stakes in the series, which is something I mentioned in my review of Aftermath. There are multiple points where Norra almost dies and Temmin's robot Mr. Bones actually gets destroyed but at the end of the book Mr. Bones is put back together. The second book was similar in that respect. Our characters were put in danger, but nobody died. Jom Barell lost an eye, Brentin Wexley was a programmed sleeper agent, and Mon Mothma got seriously wounded but everyone was still alive afterwards. It didn't feel like there were serious consequences.

This book keeps doing the same thing with putting Sinjir's boyfriend, Conder Kyl in danger (but no actual harm), and even going so far as to bomb Mon Mothma's office (but without Mon Mothma in it).  The book does finally pull the trigger, in a very literal sense, and kills off both Jom Barell and Bretin Wexley (oh and Mr. Bones dies too), but neither had as much of an emotional punch for me. In fact, it seemed strange to me in the end of the book that Temmin seemed more upset that Mr. Bones was destroyed than the fact that his dad died. Norra also seemed to move on pretty quickly to Wedge after Bretin's death as well. I guess it could be implied that they had already moved on emotionally since Bretin had disappeared years ago but I felt it would have been more emotionally impactful for Norra and Temmin to get Bretin back from the dead just to lose him again. As for Jom, I felt like the books simply weren't long enough for him to be developed into a character for me to be invested in.

At the end of the day, I feel like these books took a little too much time for too little payoff. I appreciate the attempt to introduce new characters, but for whatever reason I found it difficult for me to get emotionally invested in them. While we get some explanation of where the First Order came from, with the remnants of the old Empire fleeing beyond the edges of the known galaxy. It does beg the question of what happened to Admiral Sloane afterwards and again, HOW THE HECK DID SNOKE END UP IN CHARGE? But otherwise there doesn't seem to be a lot recommending this, or other books in the new canon.

- Kalpar