Tuesday, June 07, 2011

You Are What You Read

I've been thinking about books lately. Mostly mourning all the books I've lost, but also about what books radically shook my brain and made me a better thinker and/or person.

I'm about to repeat myself for about the thousandth time, but I wanted to get these bits down into one post so next time I go searching for them, I know where they are. Thank you internet for being the back up storage for my brain.

The first was a book about torture, Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People: The Dynamics of Torture by John Conroy. I read this when we first went to war in Iraq, and when the first torture pictures started trickling out on the web (long before Abu Girab became public) I immediately recognized the 5 Acts used by the KGB (and later everyone, including us) to torture without leaving marks. Recognizing torture as an institutional and not just an individual act is one of the things I learned to do from this book. But the most important thing I took away from this was in a single little chapter at the end about the one in 50 people who will intervene instead of join in. It taught me that the smallest acct of humanizing a victim in the midst of abuse can turn the tide of the Ordinary People and stop or mitigate the abuse. But there are a thousand ways and times we can humanize a victim that don't involve the hard bright lines of torture but the everyday, common place injustice. So even if I don't have spare change for the homeless guy on the corner, I treat them kindly because you never know if my acting decently will inspire the dude behind me who does have the spare change to give it out.

You want to hear about Swedish Socialists? Of course you do! I read a biography (which I now cannot find the name of) of Tage Erlander, Sweden's first Socialist Prime Minister. A huge chunk of how I think about political economy comes from this book. But the most basic is that Business' only purpose as far as the State is concerned should be the payment of taxes. If a business cannot either pay corporate tax OR pay its employees well enough that they pay income tax, then the business is a failure in the eyes of the State and should be allowed to fail. Think about that when you hear yet another story about how some mega-corp made billions of dollars and didn't pay taxes.

I have to admit, I didn't read all of John Rawls' Theory Of Justice. But I read enough to get the Veil of Ignorance idea, and it is the most elegant way to think about social justice in any form. The idea is that in order to design a fair society, the designers (us) have to be ignorant (or imagine we are) of what position we will hold in the society of our creation. It's this idea that makes me, a non-illegal drug user, so adamant about bodily autonomy for everyone.

And then there is Elizabeth Gaskell. A little Victorian Social Justice fiction writer in the same strain as Dickens. Best known for writing the books that became BBC miniseries like Cranford and North and South, she is perhaps a bit of a proto-socialist. She wrote the most profound thing about wages that I have ever read, and I've badly paraphrased here multiple times.

I say, our labour's our capital, an we oughta draw interest on that. They get interest on their capital somehow a' this time, while ourn is lying idle, how else could they live as they do?

You should go read the rest of the page. It gets into how steeply the price of land rises.

There is, of course, always more. There's Gramsci's prison diaries and (thanks to Montag)Guy Debord's Society of the Spectacle. There's Frank Herbert's Dune series, which yes is problematic and the older I get the more I see that. But it gave me my first understanding of the power of empire. Which of course leads me to David Spurr's Rhetoric of Empire. I could keep going, but...

So dear readers, if you are still with me, what books rocked your melon in new and fabulous ways?

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