Help! is almost 3!

help!A bit amazed by this … These are NCLA Gov Resources Section’s webinars (http://www.nclaonline.org/government-resources/help-im-accidental-government-information-librarian-webinars) since April 2011. We will be three years old in April and still going strong. Thanks to all of our volunteers! You make this possible!

2011
April: The basics with Bryna Coonin
May: Genealogy Using Government Information with Jane Johnson
June: American Community Survey and Census 2010 with Michele Hayslett
June: Economic Census with Mray Scanlon
July: Beyond Google: Effective Patent Searching in Every Library with David Zwicky and Hyun-Duck Chung
July: Resources for Guard and Reserve Soldiers and their Families with David Durant
September: Good Health (Information) in North Carolina with Rebecca Hyman
September: State Agency Databases with Daniel Cornwall
November: Beginner’s Guide to Legislative History with Rebecca Hyman
November: Maps and geospatial information from the federal government with Marcy Bidney
December: PubMed, PubMed Central, and Medlineplus – What’s the difference? with Lea Leininger

2012
January: Creative Commons with Rosalind Tedford
February: Betty H. Carter Women Veterans Historical Project (WVHP) with Beth Ann Koelsch
February: Government Resources of the European Union with Howard Carrier
April: International Government information with Jim Church
May: American Community Survey with Michele Hayslett
June: Hunting Down Fugitives and What to Do With Them Once You Found Them with Vicki Tate
September: Researching the House Un-American Activities Committee with David Durant
September: Mooooooore Data at the USDA! with Amy West
November: United Nations Statistics and Data Resources with Melanie Maskin
December: British and Commonwealth legal materials with Howard Carrier

2013
January: Information for International Development: Poverty Reduction, International Organizations, and Civil Society with Jim Church
February: Homeland Security Digital Library with Greta Marlatt
March: All you ever wanted to know about Economic Indicators! with Mary Scanlon
April: Come to Your Census: the development of the U.S. Census from its inception to the present with Bryna Coonin
May: Legal Research …Without the Law Library with Jennifer Behrens
June: Just the Facts, Ma’am!  Getting Started with the U.S. Census & American FactFinder with Katharin Peter
August: Climbing Capitol Hill: The Basics of Congressional Research with Rosalind Tedford
August: Historical Economic Data Sources & Economic Time Travel with Pamela Campbell
October: I Didn’t Know I Could Do That!: using government and government-related websites for research on just about anything Alex Simons
November: Geocoding for Beginners with Christine Murray
December: Secrets of the Congressional Record with Melanie Maksin

2014
February:  Keeping  up with Congress with Jeremy Darrington
March: Tracking Federal Legislation with Pix Fleming

Cruel Humanitarians

This post is part of a history of a human rights class reading list. See more reviews under the human rights tag.

In Polemical Pain: Slavery, Cruelty, and the Rise of Humanitarianism, Margaret Abruzzo examines the contested origins of the idea of humanitarianism by investigating the proslavery and antislavery debates over the meaning of pain. This is an excellent work for understanding not only the intellectual development of the pro and antislavery positions, but also for breaking apart the concept of humanitarianism, to understand it as a contested and not static term.

She begins with a discussion of the role of the Quakers in developing the idea of sinfulness of slaveholders. For them slaveholding was not wrong because it inflicted pain, but because it created a desire for luxury, therefore bringing shame to the community. Over time this morphs into a broader understanding of the sufferer and the role of the community to alleviate suffering. Next, she examines the merging of Scottish moral philosophy with American religion, where indifference to the misery of others is sign of a moral and social breakdown. Both of these cases tend to focus on distant cruelty as the problem and not the immediate issue of slavery. Because of this it becomes much easier to fight “distant cruelties” such as the slave trade than to tackle the slavery issue at home. Finally she presents the proslavery view that argues that slavery was a moral responsibility of the slave owner to the slave, and that life outside of slavery would be harsh and cruel.

This last point is especially critical because proslavery advocates were framing slavery as benevolent (if free, the slaves would suffer, etc), which then nudged the antislavery activists toward using cruelty rhetoric too. Many antislavery activists found this rhetoric problematic because they were wanting to frame slavery in terms of human rights and equality and not in terms of pain and suffering. Because society was not ready or willing to answer those harder questions of equality, cruelty became the dominant discourse. Unfortunately the proslavery rhetoric of slavery as benevolent returns after the Civil War to shape race relations through the “myth of the happy slave” (236).

This is a critical book because it breaks apart the notion of humanitarianism and examines the debate over its meaning. This is significant because “Humanitarianism relies on a facade of self-evidence, the sense that both cruelty and humanness should be instantly recognizable to all people of goodwill” (239). The problem though is that “cruelty allowed whites to criticize slavery without asking tough questions about human rights, racial equality, or African Americans’ place in society” (239). And this problem still exists. We are better able to identify issues of suffering and pain than to deal with the larger questions about justice.

While not a book for everyone, it illuminates issues surrounding the idea of humanitarianism, both in the origin of the idea and in its future application.

America’s destiny … warts included

This post is part of a history of a human rights class reading list. See more reviews under the human rights tag.

Manifest Destiny: American Expansion and the Empire of Right by Anders Stephanson is a short gast-hi-resbook (it almost doesn’t fit the page length for Cannonball Read), but don’t be deceived. It is incredibly dense. It is one of those books that to understand it fully you almost need to read it twice. Nonetheless, if you really want to know more about the origins of manifest destiny and America exceptionalism, this is a perfect starting point.

I am presenting this book to my class on Wednesday and need to work through some thoughts beforehand. So if this review seems disjointed it is because I’m still getting my head around his arguments. Basically he is examining the origins of the ideology of manifest destiny in American thought and political culture. While we can point directly to John O’Sullivan who coined the term in 1845 when he wrote that the role of the US is “to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions,” Stephanson argues that the broader idea of manifest destiny is rooted in the Puritans’ understanding of themselves as God’s chosen people.

He then looks at how this religiously rooted ideology develops over time and negotiates expanding US borders. This religious ideology then becomes intertwined with agricultural and industrial capitalism and mutates into a more secular understanding of manifest destiny, but while the national ideology takes on a new character, “the sacred-prophetic impulse never waned” (110). The interesting difference in these two ideologies is that the older religious idea of manifest destiny focused on a predestined future of God’s chosen people, while in the newer ideology will be determined by individual agency.

The most interesting chapter to me is his closing essay where he discusses President Wilson’s time up to the 1990s. He critiques President Wilson’s understanding of the United States’ role as the leader in the world and how that is still infused with a prophetic mission. This translates into a principle of universal right that believes it is always right and sees those who disagree as “inhuman or criminal” (119).

Interestingly he ends in the mid-1990s (the book was published in 1995) and maintains that the difficulty for the US is that it has lost its defining enemy with the end of the Cold War, and therefore “simple concepts super-imposed on simple divisions and simple enemies no longer suffice as basic ideological props of American geopolitics (129).” I would love to see an update to the work in light of the past decade’s events. Have we invented a new enemy in “terrorism” based on our understanding of America’s destiny?

King of the severed hands #cbr6

I am taking a graduate course on the history of human rights (yes, for the fun of it) and hope to write book reviews (depending on time). If you are interested you can see those reviews under the human rights tag. More to come.

Monument in Arlon. It says "I have undertaken the work in Congo in the interest of civilisation and for the good of Belgium." CC 2.0 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Monument_%C3%A0_L%C3%A9opold_II_.jpg

Monument in Arlon. It says “I have undertaken the work in Congo in the interest of civilization and for the good of Belgium.” (cc 2.0 by Olnnu)

King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild is one of those books I always wanted to read, but had trouble getting around to. Honestly you know it isn’t going to be an “easy” book, so it was difficult to make the time. When I saw it on our supplemental reading list as a book on which I could give a required presentation, I jumped on it. I’m very glad I did.

This work describes King Leopold II’s land grab of the Congo River area during the scramble for Africa of the late 19th century, which led to the deaths of 8 to 10 million Africans, the destruction of their societies, and the devastation of the area’s wild rubber plants. Each chapter takes on a different character or episode through the history. Starting with Stanley’s quest to find Livingstone and journeying through Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Hochschild does a fabulous job telling this brutal story through the eyes of people who lived it. He also tries as much as possible to bring African voices into the narrative. Of course this is not easy considering the oppression of the regime and the lack of historical interest in those voices.

Along with other books in our class, Hochschild points out Leopold II’s need to couch his colonial conquest in humanitarian terms. (Polemical Pain, which I will review later, makes a similar argument using the American pro-slavery rhetoric). Of course this “humanitarian effort” is patronizing, based on “moral uplift”, scientific progress, and stopping the Arab slave trade. To do this Leopold creates a Geographical Conference in 1876 and humanitarian shell organizations. All of these efforts are used to bolster his ambitions to create his colony in Africa.

Ultimately though, the story’s main focus are the people who tried to bring attention to the brutal regime in the Congo, including George Washington Williams, E.D. Morel, Reverend William H. Sheppard, and Sir Roger Casement. In various ways all of them contributed to what Hochschild calls the first international human rights movement of the 20th century. It is humbling to read about the sacrifices each one of them made to bring attention to the brutality of Leopold’s colony. While it is the Africans who suffered, these people gave up quite a bit, in some case their lives, to stop that suffering.

The only major criticism is that Hochschild’s tendency to psychoanalyze his characters can be a bit much. He describes Stanley as “one part titan of rugged force …; the other a vulnerable, illegitimate son of the working class.” King Leopold II whom for good reason he is much less kind seems like a ball of evil enveloped in aristocratic clothing. While it makes the book more readable, he never goes into enough depth about their psychology (except maybe Stanley) to understand their motivations. Statements like — “the adventurers who carried out the European seizure of Africa were often not the bold, bluff, hardy men of legend, but restless, unhappy, driven men, in flight from something in their past” — feel trite and cliched in comparison to the weighty history he is describing. Instead, I would prefer that he stick to contextualizing their actions in the society, economics, and culture of the day than to try to “understand the man.” But, psychoanalysis makes for more engaging popular history. 

My minor criticism is that I would have loved more maps … or any maps. Granted I can grab my phone and google the Congo River, but I love a good map to guide me along. I wish more authors could appreciate that. Hochschild is an excellent narrator who describes the surroundings well enough to imagine, but any work with such a strong connection to geography needs some maps.

This is an important work and required reading for anyone interested in colonialism, human rights or Africa. While it isn’t an easy topic, Hochschild is a kind narrator and writes extremely well. Don’t wait like I did; just go ahead and read it!

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton #cbr6

Oh my word. I have no idea where to begin with The Luminaries. It is amazingly complex, overwhelming, and a readable mystery all at the same time. I finished this 800 page tome and wondered what the heck I had just experienced. I’m not sure if that is a criticism or a compliment.

Set in Gold Rush era New Zealand of the 1860s, it begins with a young man’s arrival to a small back water town on the south island. Relaxing in a hotel lounge, he happens across a furtive gathering of 12 men from a mix of backgrounds, classes, and races, all reflecting the typical characters drawn by the lure of gold. They proceed to tell him a perplexing and entangled mystery about love, betrayal, lost gold, vengeance, and death.

The difficulty of the story is that they are each telling their version (or piece) of the tale. No one in this novel can tell you exactly what happened; they can only give their snapshots. So the text can move slowly at times. You read a couple hundred pages and realize you haven’t gotten far in comprehending the story. By the time I reached the end I had almost stopped caring … almost.

Another issue I had is that there are many characters and several of the voices get lost (or I just mixed them up). There is the young man (Moody), the 12 men in the lounge all who play a side part, and then the 7 primary characters around whom the story mainly revolves. Some of the 12 are really well defined characters with interesting perspectives, especially Tom Balfour, Moody, and Aubert Gascoigne, but the rest blend together in Victorian man character-ness. The two women, Lydia and Anna, stand out much more, however, which is good because they are strong and interesting characters. Overall, though, it seems like the number of characters is more a technique than a necessity.

And speaking of technique, a review must mention the structure of the book, which Catton bases on astrology. There I mentioned it … because lord knows I didn’t get it. For a concise explanation see Elizabeth Knox’s launch speech. The part that makes sense is that each chapter is half the size of the previous. According to Knox, this leads to momentum in the story. Yeah. Well. So does reading a griping story.

Anyway, fabulous historical and literary fiction and certainly worth the time needed to finish it. The story and characters are engaging even if you don’t know a thing about astrology. I may still think TransAtlantic should have won the Man Booker Prize, but I concede this was a special book of 2013.

Inventing Human Rights: A History by Lynn Hunt

I promised myself I would write at least 24 reviews for Cannonball this year and I have written exactly one. I’m reading a lot, but no time for writing it seems.  So, in the name of a snow day, here is review #2!

This semester I am taking a graduate class on the history of human rights. It has been fantastic even though snow has interrupted it twice now. One of our first books was Inventing Human Rights by Lynn Hunt. She examines the language of human rights as it emerged with the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the American Declaration of Independence. She argues that before and during that time period we see a change in thinking and a rise in empathy towards other people. This coincided with the emergence of new popular literature, the epistolary novel, as well as shifts in perceptions of torture and its purpose.

The strongest section is her chapter on Richardson’s Pamela and Rousseau’s Julie, the two big epistolary novels of that time period. She does a nice job explaining how these works could give rise to empathy for others. Of course she can’t make a causal argument, but she attempts to show how people identified strongly with the “fate” of those main characters, so much so that they begin to think they were real. (It reminds me of the Harry Potter fan base especially with Rowling’s reinterpretation of Hermione and Ron’s relationship.)

The challenge with this book is that she is trying to make a much stronger argument about empathy, and I don’t think she succeeds. In arguing for empathy she is actually arguing that it is a biological change in how we think about others–that our brains fundamentally change. It is an interesting argument, but how on earth do you prove that, especially in relation to historical events and people. Luckily she doesn’t dwell too much on this idea and the rest of the book is still fascinating and well worth a read if you are interested in human rights history.

After the Music Stopped by Alan S. Blinder

For some reason I remember Lehman Day (September 15, 2008) pretty well. I was reading the New York Times online in between teaching classes when the news popped up on the screen. It isn’t that I’m particularly interested in business news although I make an effort to keep up with international economics for my classes. But that day stayed with me because I remember feeling completely bewildered by what was happening. To me it was obvious that all heck was going to break loose, but it didn’t seem to be obvious to our political leaders. After 8 years of fundamentally disagreeing  with most of our leadership’s policies, it seemed like this was the outgoing middle finger to America.

Once the great recession started I wished someone would or could just sit down and explain everything. Trying to decipher the news at that time (and wade through the partisan BS) was impossible. You could get bits and pieces, but no solid explanations were readily available. In this chronicle of the events leading up to and after the crash of 2008, Blinder has tried to fill that gap and he does a fabulous job. While a basic understanding of economics and finance is helpful, he defines complex terms and presents difficult information in a clear way. And I mean that when I say clear. He is almost conversational in tone, but it doesn’t sound condescending. Only one or two chapters were a bit tough to get through (the one on spreads was a bit brutal), but the rest honestly reads like a thriller. Except it is scarier because you know this is all real and your next door neighbor did lose his house and job and you lost your retirement funds.

I also really appreciated this book because it corrects much of the collective amnesia that infects this country. Things like:

  • The government gave a away cash to the banks! (WRONG: The government made loans and investments.)
  • The government lost all of that taxpayer money through TARP (WRONG: the government made a profit.)
  • TARP and the stimulus were the same thing (WRONG WRONG WRONG)
  • This all happened on President Obama’s watch (…….wtf?!)

Not that anyone will remember this tomorrow …

But not to give you the wrong impression. He stays away from partisan politics and focuses on what both sides did wrong. When he writes that President Obama’s biggest issue was not staying on message and communicating plans effectively, I couldn’t agree more. Unfortunately the President has allowed others to frame the issues (typically framed in lies–see above) and thereby set the agenda. It is frustrating to watch, but maybe, just maybe Michelle will have given him this book for Christmas and he will take heed. One can hope.

And if not we will have all forgotten it in another 8 years.