I’ve always been curious about the life of Jesus, or what of it can be accounted for outside the New Testament. It’s a topic so burdened with sensitive beliefs and emotions, that it’s a little hard to approach with casual interest.

In Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, the author acknowledges that neither the Gospels nor their authors were contemporary to Jesus’s life, and that the Gospels were not meant to be historically literal accounts of it. But since there is little else to go by, he analyzes them against what is known about first century Palestine.

Aslan’s thesis is that the historical Jesus led one of a succession of Jewish rebellions and movements against Roman occupiers and corrupt Temple priests. To Jesus, being the messiah would have meant re-establishing the kingdom of David, and ridding his homeland of these malign influences. The fact of his crucifixion meant, in the eyes of contemporaries who weren’t his devotees, that he was not really the messiah. It wasn’t until after the Romans finally crushed the Jewish revolts and destroyed both Jerusalem and the Temple that Jesus’s martyrdom was reinterpreted as “messianic,” and then mostly among non-Jews influenced by Paul of Tarsus.

Aslan dismisses the magical (or miraculous, if you like) stuff, including the resurrection, as a matter of faith and beyond the bounds of historical analysis. So, except to say that magicians weren’t unusual in that place and time, but were considered subversive, he doesn’t take a position on any of it.

I read through Aslan’s extensive endnotes. They are rendered in essay form— something I don’t usually like— but he’s pretty thorough and summarizes opposing viewpoints. I’d love to see this guy’s library. 

In the notes Aslan frequently refers to scholarship suggesting that  the lack of contemporary references means that in his lifetime Jesus was basically a nobody special; just another zealot from the boondocks. It was the Christians of the early church who made him into Christ, an orthodoxy that was only enforced as Christianity became a state religion. Christian beliefs that Jesus was not God were exterminated soon after.

To Des Moines for Wicked

The splash page of the Lonely Planet website is elegantly simple: a search box already filled with an exotic destination like “Macedonia,”  on a background photo depicting one of that destination’s amazing attractions (in Macedonia’s case, a castle perched on a hill).

I sighed, and typed in “Des Moines.”

According to Lonely Planet:

Des Moines, meaning ‘of the monks’ not ‘in the corn’ as the surrounding fields might suggest, is Iowa’s snoozy capital. The town really is rather dull, but does have one of the nation’s best state capitols and state fairs. Pause, but then get out and see the state.

This is a typically sneering assessment and yet, quite accurate.

We had tickets for the Broadway tour of the musical Wicked this afternoon. The Des Moines Civic Center was completely packed for it. Wicked, the book by Gregory Maguire, is one of my favorites. I own it and have read it several times, which was a slight distraction from enjoying the musical, but not too much. There are a lot of layers to contend with, though: the musical is based on Maguire’s book, which in turn is alternate perspective on L. Frank Baum’s book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and its 1939 film adaptation The Wizard of Oz.

Even though the show starts out like an parallel-universe Victorian Grease, it  eventually takes on the ominous tone of the novel. The songs were very good, though none were truly catchy. The woman who played Glinda was especially funny (she invoked a lot of Carol Kane). Most impressive about the production was the way they used lighting to create patterns and effects. In the scene that concludes the first act, the character Elphaba floats in the dark at the apex of a cone of light beams which make her look giant and supernatural.

Alternate history

Though I’ve neglected writing my “book reports,” I’ve been through plenty of books this year, part of an effort to be a little more well-read. Lately I’ve been exploring classic science fiction and one of its sub genres, alternate history. The alternate histories I read this summer and fall are The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick, The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson, For Want of a Nail: If Burgoyne Had Won at Saratoga by Robert Sobel, and Bring the Jubilee by Ward Moore. Along with Fatherland by Robert Harris (which I reported on a few years ago) these stories encompassed a formidable spread of approaches to the genre of alternate history.

The Man in the High Castle is set in a United States that lost the Second World War and is divided into puppet states dominated by Germany and Japan. The book’s historical divergence is pretty plausible. The assassination attempt on President-Elect Franklin Roosevelt in 1933 is successful. The weak and incompetent presidents of the next decade leave the United States unprepared for the coming world war.

The book deals indirectly with how Americans might be disposed toward such an outcome. The Nazis are still bastards, of course, responsible for a monumental holocaust across Africa. Jews and blacks have largely disappeared from the United States, but most of the characters have accommodated themselves to their occupiers. In fact, many Americans express gratitude for the Axis’ extinguishing of world communism. It’s a good reminder that, if not for certain geopolitical calculations, we could have easily ended up on the other side of either world war. The most interesting turn of the plot is the emergence of a popular but subversive alternate history novel that hypothesizes an American and British victory over the Germans and Japanese.

The Years of Rice and Salt is both deep and sprawling . The historical divergence isn’t really plausible— the Black Death of the 14th century wipes out the entire population of Europe (as in, literally, the land between the Urals, Caucuses, Mediterranean, and Atlantic, as if diseases could confine themselves to artificially conceived geographic designations). The characters don’t dwell much on this puzzle; the mysterious plague is simply a handy device for imagining several centuries where Islamic and Chinese civilizations dominate the world.

Robinson’s stories are pretty erudite, steeped in science and philosophy along with history. This can make his books a little know-it-allish and tedious to read, but he constructs a sturdy fictional world for his characters to inhabit. The plot threads its way down the centuries through main characters reincarnated into different periods of world history. The most enjoyable chapter takes place in 17th century Samarkand and chronicles a Muslim gunpowder manufacturer who, under the patronage of the local khan, develops the scientific method as he investigates various natural mysteries.

For Want of Nail is in some ways the most remarkable of the three books. Rather than relate the alternate history through the plot of novel, the book is the alternate history, presented as an academic work, complete with footnotes, bibliography, even a critique by a dissenting historian. The subtitle, “If Burgoyne Had Won at Saratoga,” is the only evidence of its self-awareness as a work of fiction. The academic conceit of the book makes it a bit of a slog to read through, but I felt it paid off to stick with it.

The historical divergence of For Want of a Nail, as the subtitle suggests, is the British victory in the pivotal Battle of Saratoga in 1778. Which is pretty plausible; there was more than a little luck involved in the War of Independence, which the author wryly illustrates through his pro-loyalist persona. George Washington’s tactical blunders, the fractiousness of the colonies, the unpreparedness of the Continental Army to take on the world mightiest power—  the Revolution seems an ill-conceived adventure in a parallel universe, doesn’t it?

The war lost, moderates in Congress negotiate a settlement with London which reconstitutes the colonies as part of the empire in a Commonwealth-style association, the Confederation of North America, or CNA (the 13 colonies plus the Canadian colonies and the Old Northwest). The surviving rebels and their fellow travelers decamp to the frontier lands of New Spain (paralleling the flight of loyalists to Canada), where they set up their own republic called Jefferson (our Texas). Their leaders co-opt the Mexican Revolution and establish the United States of Mexico, or USM (comprising the territories of Mexico as they were before the Mexican-American War, including California and Arizona).

Some of the early characters are familiar, like Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John Dickinson, John Burgoyne, John C. Calhoun, and most importantly Andrew Jackson. But as the timeline progresses, familiar names and events disappear. There is no French Revolution of 1789, no American Civil War, no Second World War; no Napoleon, no Lincoln, no Hitler

The most peculiar development in For Want of a Nail is the rise of a huge multinational corporation, Kramer Associates, which from the California gold rush to dominate Mexico as an vertical industrial monopoly and becomes a world power as a non-state actor, even being the first to develop atomic weapons.

As the CNA and the USM square off in North America, Sobel uses them to play out the dual personality of the United States. The CNA is progressive, egalitarian, peaceful and isolationist, broadly industrialized and prone to quixotic social reforms. The USM is conservative, racially and economically stratified, militaristic, and expansionist. Slavery persists there well into the 20th century, and occasional draconian measures accompany a devolution into authoritarianism and dictatorship.

I also read this summer, as part of a collection of short alternate history stories, Bring the Jubilee by Ward Moore, about life in the United States after Confederate victory at Gettysburg.  By the early 20th century the United States is decrepit and impoverished, at the mercy of predatory foreign interests, including the Confederate States. The main character, an expert on the Battle of Gettysburg, takes his academic investigations to extraordinary.  I don’t want to say any more about the plot because I wish you would read it, along with some of these other stories.

All Yesterdays

Here’s a fun book that may not be in your library, since it seems hard to get a hold of: All Yesterdays: Unique and Speculative Views of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals by John Conway, C.M. Kosemen, and Darren Naish.

In the brief introduction, the authors argue that the lack of soft tissue found along with skeletal fossils leads illustrators to depict the exteriors of animals as following closely along the bone structure. But, they note, the skeletons of living animals are “effectively invisible” because they are thickly surrounded by muscle, fat, hides, and hair or feathers.

The skeletons of modern birds– owls and parrots, for example– have long, slender neck skeletons, but overlying skin and thick feather coverings obscure these entirely.

So they present their artwork that follows anatomically faithful to the skeleton and then overlaid with speculation about the soft tissues and behavior (just how did male stegosaurus mount females for mating with all the back armor?). And, in a bit of professional self-criticism, the last section of the book includes drawings of living animals as if only partial skeleton fossils were known, showing just how far off our speculation about dinosaurs might be, illustrating two menacing dragon-like swans with their impossibly long necks spearing fish prey “with their long, scythe-like forelimbs.”

The light touch is what makes it an enjoyable, short book to peruse.

Ender’s Game

As you might guess from some of my recent book reports, I’ve been making my way through some of NPR’s Top 100 Science-Fiction Books.

High on the list is Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. I had never heard of it before. It is a very good story though, very plainly written. In the author’s preface to the edition I read, Card writes that he cut out some of the prose he found excessive, then goes on to defend the book against what must have been for him bothersome criticism. I think the plain style works nicely in Ender’s Game. I don’t care much for fiction which gets too philosophical. I think the story have a larger meaning without being overly philosophical. It simply places a greater burden on the author to create a really strong story.

Most of the characters in the book are young children, including the main character, Ender. They are super gifted, all recruited to fight off an imminent space invasion that threatens human extinction. They don’t talk much like children—even gifted kids don’t sound so adult-like. Card addresses this in his preface also, pointing out that children don’t perceive their thoughts as being childlike, nor do adults recall their childhood thoughts as very different from their adult ones. I still can’t decide of that’s a clever excuse or a brilliant story-telling device. Because a novel filled with third-grader dialogue would have been pretty tedious.

Move to the adult section

Here’s a good rule of thumb: famous artists’ private lives do not make good children’s books. Looking through the children’s section at the library I found “Who Was Pablo Picasso?” by Kelley True. It’s a biography of Picasso written for elementary school ages. From what I saw it was a good example of how children’s books should be more than adult subjects written on a fourth grade level. A lot in it was out the average nine year old’s reach, like an explanation of who Gertrude Stein was. (Most adults can’t explain who Gertrude Stein was; the book describes her as the lady who wrote the famous line, “A rose is a rose is a rose.” Oh, her.)

Most inappropriately, the book has an account of when Picasso’s muse Françoise Gilot left him. I’m paraphrasing from memory here, but it went something like, “Picasso was devastated. No woman had ever left him before. He was always the one who decided when things were over.” Ack!

World War Z

A trailer for the movie World War Z, set for release next year, got our attention so I borrowed the book by Max Brooks from the library. I finished it in a couple of days. If you ever read Hard Times by Studs Terkel, you get the idea. Instead of it being an oral history of the Great Depression, it’s an oral history of a global zombie war that took place right around now.

The author obviously gave a lot of thought to the logistics of a zombie plague like: the undead couldn’t drown so those that ended up in the water might stay there, either submerged or floating, posing hazards to swimmers and men-overboard. I thought that was one of the more colorful innovations in the book. Brooks hints at but doesn’t really explain the nature or science of the zombie plague, which isn’t really necessary and would take some of the fun out of the story. He establishes some general rules: the zombies are pretty standard mindless ghouls that walk slow, eat people they can catch, moan, and are stopped only by destroying their brains.

It’s funny, though, because the author and his characters keep calling it a “war” while acknowledging that it was unlike a war (zombies don’t get afraid or lose their spirit or surrender). Without any political contention between the “combatants” I don’t think a zombie outbreak or whatever you might call it would be any more a war than a flu pandemic. But maybe we’re just used to making warlike analogies for every conflict and contest. Probably this is the habit of a people who don’t really know war.

The Violinist’s Thumb

I got about halfway through The Violinist’s Thumb by Sam Kean before the library asked for it back (and I’m happy to give it up). It’s a book about genetics, and by book I mean a loosely connected bunch of interesting anecdotes about genetics. The anecdotes are footnoted with other anecdotal digressions in the back of the book, at least one of which refers to the author’s website for further digressions. Good grief. Perhaps books should be written for reasons other than to show off the author’s knowledge of a topic.

For all of the book’s colorful stories I had a lot of trouble getting through it. The author writes with a forced informal style so loaded with slang and obscure references as to arrest the flow of the narrative. I wonder how English readers outside the United States would ever understand it.


Shoeless Joe

Somehow, my wife has gotten away for years without having watched Field of Dreams. Likewise, I’ve lived in Iowa City twice that long and had never read W.P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe, the book Field of Dreams is based on. The book is set in Iowa, specifically in Johnson County near Iowa City. Kinsella is an alumnus of the University of Iowa’s renowned Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

We remedied all that last week. Of the movie my wife commented, “Kevin Costner is not a very good actor and that was not a very good movie.” I agreed that it seemed better when I was a kid, that it’s too sentimental, that you need a deep cultural understanding of baseball to like it, and that Kevin Costner is not a very good actor.

I hadn’t seen Field of Dreams in a long time, but I took the opportunity to compare it to the book. The main character, Ray Kinsella, has a creepy intensity and obsessiveness that didn’t come out on the screen— he’s eccentric but not disarming and likable like Costner. Otherwise the story follows pretty closely. A lot of the dialogue is right off the page, though the book has many more characters.

I guess all that’s left is to go up to Dyersville and see the Field of Dreams movie site; a tourist trap that dies a little bit with every year the movie recedes into our collective memory. We can take our time: they just got a tax break from the state so they’ll be around for a little while.

On conservation and sentiment

I do not care if some professor in some rabbit warren of a concrete university office building calls my thinking inexact and sentimental. Sentiment— call it love— for the wild is  ultimately why Will and I became rangers. Sentiment is why any of us bother to raise children, who sometimes don’t appreciate what we do; why we care tenderly for elderly parents after age has deprived them of the memory of our names. It is why we try to salvage the juvenile delinquent, the alcoholic, the drug addict. Without it we are not human.

Jordan Fisher Smith, Nature Noir

Summer reading, summer not

I’ve neglected my “book reports,” so here’s a summary of summery readings.

Perhaps because we’ve discussed taking a trip there, the book Mount Rushmore: An Icon Reconsidered by Jesse Larner caught my eye at the library. It’s not about the impressive technical achievements of the monument, but about its meaning and how that meaning has changed from the time it’s conception and and creation until today. Larner argues that ignoring intended meaning of the monument (one of white conquest and supremacy), or changing the meaning to make it more palatable to today’s sensibilities is a dishonest treatment of its history. I’m a little uncomfortable with the monument and found this book useful for untangling its complicated legacy. It would be even more useful book with an index and without some glaring errors about the history of our national parks (“Devil’s Tower National Monument is the oldest park in the National Park system, inaugurated by Teddy Roosevelt in 1906.”), facts that could have been easily checked.

I had no idea Ray Bradbury was still alive when I heard news of his death. It seemed like as good a time as any to read another of his books, so I checked out The Martian Chronicles. Like Fahrenheit 451, it is surprisingly visionary and cynical for a book written in the early 1950s. Looking at it from 2012, I can’t tell if he was using creative license or if people just didn’t know about environmental conditions on Mars before the Mars Viking expeditions. So the Earth men arriving in their “rockets,” walking around and breathing on Mars without suffocating or being incinerated by ultraviolet radiation seems a little quaint.

End This Depression Now by Paul Krugman will come in handy, if I can memorize it, for disarming arguments against deficit spending on economic relief. Krugman deserves credit for being able to write about economics without giving his readers nosebleeds. Too bad nobody ever listens to him. I wonder sometimes about his dismissive characterizations of efficient-market theorists, though.

In case anybody doubts that Gregory Maguire is sick of cashing in on his Wicked franchise, he subtitled Out of Oz  “The Final Volume of the Wicked Years.” The Wicked series functions as a sort of alternative history of Oz, where the Wicked Witch of the West is a symbol of resistance against Emerald City tyranny. Maguire has a real talent for vivid, imaginative writing (he’s great at describing little details like sounds), but this book is on par with the previous two installments (both okay but not as smashing as the original Wicked), and it follows the Lord of the Rings pattern a little too closely.

And now I’m reading Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter by Seth Graeme-Smith, on recommendation from a friend. So far it’s fun but perhaps a little too aware of itself as a parody of vampire-slayer stories. The author uses a strange technique of alternating between third-person narration and first-person “excerpts” from Lincoln’s long-lost journal.

AUTHOR’S NOTE 8/29: Oh, and I totally forgot The Monkey-Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey. On my first trip to the Four Corners region I brought a copy of Desert Solitaire, Abbey’s account of his summer as a ranger at Arches National Monument. I found Abbey’s voice in Desert Solitaire arrogant and condescending, but he had a clear vision and passion for what the wild outdoor experience ought to be. That passion comes out in the fictional The Monkey-wrench Gang but his ego is divided and distributed among the four principal characters, so it’s a bit more tolerable.

Native Guard

All the grave markers, all the crude headstones—
water-lost. Now fish dart among their bones,
and we listen for what the waves intone.
Only the fort remains, near forty feet high,
round, unfinished, half-open to the sky,
the elements— wind, rain— God’s deliberate eye.

Natasha Trethewey, Native Guard

I heard on the radio that the United States has a new poet-laureate. This is not something I usually pay much attention to, except that Natasha Trethewey’s name is familiar to me. I met her when she visited Ship Island to learn more about the Louisiana Native Guard, black soldiers who were stationed there during the Civil War. Her resulting Pulitzer Prize winning poetry book Native Guard is named after those soldiers. So after hearing the news I picked up that book from the library.

Poetry, like jazz, often eludes my attempts at appreciation, even though I write an occasional doggerel verse. The poems in Native Guard are accessible to poetry non-readers like me. They weave Trethewey’s tragic Mississippi childhood (her abusive stepfather murdered her mother) with aspects of Mississippi’s tortured racial history. Trethewey’s mother and father were respectively black and white, their marriage in those days a crime in the state (a poem about this is titled “Miscegenation”).

It wasn’t Trethewey’s personal interpretation of Mississippi that I related to most, but her verbal rendering of the national park I worked at for three and a half years. In the same poem quoted at the top of this post, titled “Elegy for the Native Guards” she writes of her visit to Fort Massachusetts on Ship island:

Inside we follow the ranger, hurried
though we are to get to the beach…

I didn’t lead that particular tour, but she captured my professional existence out there pretty succinctly. Brava!


I think Rachel Maddow is likable and engaging, though I last watched her show on MSNBC a couple of years ago. On that show she included a short segment boohooing the treatment of some Indians to whom the United Kingdom denied entry because they were traveling with Iroquois Confederacy passports. Why Maddow thought this was worth mentioning was beyond me. Nice try, Hiawatha, but get back in line. The rest of us don’t get to travel internationally on homemade passports. It’s that sort of reflexive bleeding heart nonsense that distract from real issues liberals can raise about the state of democracy in America.

Despite my annoyance with that detour I read Maddow’s new book “Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power”. The drift she refers to is the increasing distance between our foundational aversion to a large military establishment and our present condition of ceaseless warfare. Most of the book deals with the usurpation of war-making from the people’s representatives by our last several presidents. “The ‘imperial presidency'” Maddow writes, “… is a radical departure from previous views of the presidential power, and it should be taught and understood that way.” She supports her arguments with colorful anecdotes about the military adventurism of Ronald Reagan and his successors, often using their own words.

Maddow seems to think the transfer of war-making authority from Congress to the president is a recent occurrence. It is not but perhaps the scale of undeclared military operations has increased in recent decades. I would argue that our original aversion to a military establishment ended when we adopted the Constitution. Thomas Jefferson, whose writings Maddow cites as the philosophical basis for limited military capacity, was virtually alone among early presidents in disdaining the permanent army and navy.

Maddow also describes as causes of drift the sequestration of military sacrifice to a very small segment of our population, privatization and secrecy, and institutional inertia. Even the much-celebrated counterinsurgency doctrine that has recently transformed our military strategies has its dark side, since it expands the armed forces’ roles in to broader goals of “nation-building.” Nothing in “Drift” is terribly earth-shattering but it is a good, concise assessment of trends in our national attitudes about making war and how it affects our democracy.

As an aside, one of the testimonials on the back cover is from Roger Ailes, chairman and CEO of FOX News. It’s the most backhanded and lukewarm endorsement I’ve seen on a hardcover jacket. It begins with criticism (of something not really addressed in the book), then a affirmation of Maddow’s right to express her opinion, and concludes with, “Drift is a book worth reading.” I guess it’s there to attract readers who otherwise would avoid a book by Maddow but I don’t feel like liberal opinions need an official stamp of legitimacy from conservative leaders.

The Hunger Games

My first feeling after seeing “The Hunger Games” at the theater was that it was good if you like watching teenagers kill each other. I borrowed the book too. The movie follows it very closely. The main difference is that the book is told entirely in the first person from Katniss’s point of view so some of the behind-the-scenes machinations in the Capitol seen in the movie were added by the filmmakers.

The greatest value of the movie was its excellent visualization of the book’s efficient text, the best examples being in the flashy, high-tech fashions of the Capitol such as Caeser Flickerman’s talk show set. A little less impressive were the depictions of the Captiol’s architecture. My wife and I debated about whether the filmmakers intended the city to look drab or if they tried to make it look monumental and fell a bit short.

I’ve heard some jabbering about whether dystopian Panem is meant to represent the follies of a liberal or of a conservative society. I didn’t get any sense of partisanship from Suzanne Collins’ story. I thought it was more about an exploitative civilization that lived in leisurely comfort while distant, hidden people toiled for their benefit. Panem seemed like a combination of ancient Rome, pre-Revolutionary France, and contemporary North Korea but I saw a lot of us (liberal, conservative, or otherwise) in it.

Zinn fanned hell

Just who are “the people” in Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States”? One’s claim on membership, it seems, is in direct proportion to the amount of suffering at the hands of others, who in turn are somewhere in the gradient of minions and victims of “the Establishment,” a term Zinn takes care to capitalize. Zinn’s sympathies are with Marxists and anarchists, and for all the people’s history this book contains (at times it reads like a long catalog of revolts, insurrections, uprisings, riots, strikes, and protests), he doesn’t have a high opinion of “the people”, as they are forever being duped into submission by the elites.

I studied American history in college but I never read Zinn’s “A People’s History” (though I now recognize Zinn’s interpretations in some of my professors’ lectures). I’ve just finished with a copy of the 2003 edition which ends with the 2001 terrorist attacks. I’m not sure what made me pick it up all of sudden; maybe the feeling that democracy is starting to slip from our grasp.

But Zinn might have said it was never really in our grasp. According to his book the rich and powerful subvert democracy by tilting the law in their favor and then insisting we all abide by its rule. For example, he writes of our revered Bill of Rights:

The Constitution became even more acceptable to the public at large after the first Congress, responding to criticism, passed a series of amendments known as the Bill of Rights. These amendments seemed to make the new government a guardian of people’s liberties: to speak, to publish, to worship, to petition, to assemble, to be tried fairly, to be secure at home against official intrusion. It was, therefore, perfectly designed to build popular backing for the new government. what was not made clear— it was a time when language of freedom was new and its reality untested— was the shakiness of anyone’s liberty when entrusted to a government of the rich and powerful.

Zinn argues that the system is not just inherently flawed, that it’s set up this way on purpose; for all its guarantees of individual freedoms and liberties, constitutional government is still in the hands of “the Establishment”— the fox guarding the hen house. But whatever the motives were behind the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and whatever the failures to live up to its principles, intent, or promises, does it not represent the popular will? Are “the people’s” wishes illegitimate when they align with those of “the Establishment?”

I’m not sure I buy Zinn’s thesis that American constitutional democracy is “the most ingenious system of control in world history.” I’m also not sure what kind of system he would replace it with. Perhaps a committee of pinko university professors who distribute collective rights and privileges after assessing their grievances.

I understand his point that elites use racism, nationalism, imperialism, and materialism– to divide the larger population against each other. Even before reading this book, I thought a lot about the darker aspects of American history and the only way I can reconcile our national ideals with our record of genocide, imperialism, slavery, and discrimination was an unofficial ideology of white supremacy. That unofficial ideology is now out of fashion, to the degree that even racists try to hide that they are so, a great contrast to the defenders of slavery, Indian removal, overseas expansion, and Jim Crow. An ideology of prosperity seems to have replaced it; we worship growth and security more than we worship democracy.

The greatest value in Zinn’s book is his skepticism and his refusal to follow the usual nationalist narrative about how we got so great. Another perspective, backed up by legitimate scholarship, is always refreshing. Now that we’re not so great, it’s worth taking a look at how we got this way too.

From O to Zinn

I’m about halfway through “A People’s History of the United States” by Howard Zinn but at breakfast this morning I set it aside in favor of the back of the Cheerios box. It turns out that General Mills put its high-minded marketing strategies of promoting child literacy and cardiac health on hiatus in favor of “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace 3-D” merchandising. Instead of a bilingual children’s book inside, this box offered a cheap plastic pen in the shape of begoggled pod-racing eight year-old Anakin Skywalker. It was right on top, too. I didn’t have to open the liner bag or dig through puffed O’s of oat dust or do anything to get to it. I felt like I was acting out a little skit about degenerate corporate commercialism right there at my breakfast table while Howard Zinn peered at me smugly from the cover of his book.

What if?

If you’re looking for a detailed description of how Pharaoh Amenhotep LXXVII might have responded to the attacks on the Twin Pyramids in New Memphis by fanatical followers of the jealous Judean war-god on September 11, 2001, the essays in “What If? The World’s Foremost Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been” edited by Robert Cowley might seem a little unimaginative. The essayists, who include Stephen Ambrose, John Keegan, David McCullough, and James McPherson, are not fiction writers but serious historians.

The above writers’ names, which are featured on the cover, suggest that the book is mostly about American military history but it covers a good stretch of Western civilization. The first essay, about if an outbreak of plague had not caused the Assyrians to lift their siege of Jerusalem in 701 BC, is a little lame. It suggests only that had Jerusalem capitulated, Christianity and Islam, and therefore Western civilization might not have happened. That seems pretty obvious but it illustrates the great difficulty in writing counterfactual history: the farther back in history you start the greater the changes that are wrought. It would be a long essay indeed if the writer had to imagine Assyrian chariots rolling ashore in North America  2,000 years later.

The essays focus mostly on identifying the precarious pivotal moments in history and what didn’t happen; like after the recall of the Mongol army from frontiers of central Europe upon the death of their emperor the Mongols didn’t snuff out the embryonic centers of commerce and learning in medieval Europe. The American Revolution gets a lot of attention, as it was loaded with accidents and near misses which, had they not happened, the War of Independence might have been lost several times over. And we’d be the serfs of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II instead of Goldman Sachs.

I might pick up “What If? 2” later, but there is also a book called “For Want of a Nail: If Burgoyne Had Won at Saratoga” by Robert Sobel which I would like to get a hold of. And if you’re looking for an enjoyable fictional alternate history, try “Fatherland” by Robert Harris, about Nazi Germany in 1964.