Big Blue Books: Bring Them Back!

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The cover of my “big blue book”

W.J. Astore

Long ago in a used bookstore, I came across a “Big Blue Book” featuring the counsels and maxims of the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer.  My dad liked philosophy and was a fan of Schopenhauer, so I picked it up, I think for one dollar.  My tattered paperbound copy, published by Haldeman-Julius Company in Girard, Kansas, is not dated, so I had to do a little research.   According to Indiana State University:

Sold for as little as a nickel or a dime the Little Blue Books and the larger-format Big Blue Books were published and republished by the Haldeman-Julius publishing house located in Girard, Kansas to foster the ideals of American socialism and to provide a basic education for the working man. Titles began appearing as early as 1919, but the Little Blue Books series was not christened until 1923.

I think my copy dates from the late 1920s or early 1930s, since it features a catalog at the back that says 1500 “Little Blue Books” are available, all for a nickel each.  You could order all of them — all 1500 books — for $45.00, “packing and carriage charges” included.  The “little” books were about 3.5″ x 5,” or the size of a small index card, a handy size for shirt pockets; my “big” book is roughly 5.5″ x 8.5″.

Amusingly, the advert used these words to sell them: “There is not a trashy, cheap book in the lot.”  The “blue” came from the color of the cover (mine is faded), not from any “blue” or lurid contents.

What strikes me today is the focus on educating the working classes, with the expectation that workers wanted intellectually challenging and controversial material.  The back cover of my book features the following list of “Big Blue Books” available:

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Perhaps my favorite title is the “Tyranny of Bunk.”  We could use a book like that for these times.

Titles featuring Voltaire, agnosticism, Clarence Darrow (of the famous Scopes Trial, in which he defended the teaching of evolution), and the debunking of religious miracles point to the free-thinking nature of these books.  Here the “working man” is not being talked down to; rather, he’s being given the intellectual tools with which he can lift himself up.  Workers of America, read Blue Books and become educated: that was the message of these books.

Workers of those days had fewer distractions than the workers of today.  No vapid television, no video games, no materialistic orgies on Black Friday and Cyber Monday: one can imagine more than a few workers picking up a Blue Book for a nickel and enjoying it.

How much was a nickel back then?  My dad was a teenager in the early 1930s.  He told me you could go to the cinema for a nickel.  In other words, a nickel was real money, but it was also a manageable sum.

Nowadays, I suppose, anyone with a computer and an Internet connection has access to libraries of knowledge that far surpass 1500 “Little Blue Books” and their “Big Blue” cousins.  Yet I can’t quite shake the feeling that something is lost in today’s cyberworld. Under socialism and other free-thinking systems of the Roaring Twenties and Depressed Thirties, there was faith in workers, specifically in educated workers, as representing the future of a better, a more just, a fairer America.

Do we still have that same faith, that same optimism, in the common man (and woman)? It doesn’t seem that way.  We are simply not trying to educate everyone roughly equally, irrespective of social class and status and so on.

Assuming literacy, back then it seemed that all that was needed was to place the right books in the hands of workers thirsty for knowledge.  Maybe that was a simple vision, but I admire its idealism.

Can we “make America great again” by getting Americans to read again?  To read real books that address serious subjects in a mature way?  Why not start with some new, inexpensive, little and big blue books?  No lithium batteries or internet required.

Not a bad step, I think, as we fight to restore Democracy and against idiocracy.

My First (and only) Encounter with Bob Dylan

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Bob Dylan in late 1963

Richard Sahn

On a snowy evening in January 1965 four friends, including myself, drove across the Hudson River from Tivoli NY, where we were living at the time, to Woodstock. We had heard that the folksinger, Tom Paxton, was singing at the Café Espresso. I had become enamored of Paxton’s music so I was anxious to see and hear him in person. What we didn’t know was that the rising counter-cultural folk star, Bob Dylan, was also going to be there. By the time we arrived I was wondering whether it was good idea to drive the twenty miles for this mini-concert. The roads were treacherous.

As a college student in 1965 I hadn’t heard much about Bob Dylan but I did like some of his music, which my dorm mates at Bard College played constantly.  Dylan was sitting at the next table when we entered the cafe. There were only a handful of customers, mostly from the area.  As Paxton started singing some of the patrons were still talking. Suddenly, Dylan shouted at them to shut up. Perhaps he was already experiencing his celebrity because his manner was slightly intimidating. Heck, he was just a scrawny, unimpressive kid, about my age—one year older, actually.

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Tom Paxton

During a brief intermission of Paxton’s mini-concert I found myself in a backroom with the two (not too distant) future giants of counter-cultural folk music, the heirs of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. Dylan wanted to show Paxton, if memory serves me, some chords on the guitar. There were four of us in the room, including my classmate, Paul, who was the driver of the car to Woodstock. I can’t remember how this little gathering happened, what permission or lack thereof we had to witness this intimate discussion between Dylan and Paxton.  I do recall thinking that I should not give up the chance to be as close to Bob Dylan as I could get.

At one point during this strange encounter Dylan looked at me directly with a penetrating stare. I was nervous and amused at the same time. Did he know something about me I didn’t know or did he see me as a kindred spirit?  I’ll never know.

Fifty one years later I still listen to the music of the “old Dylan.”  I still marvel at the fame he’s achieved since the time I met him in person when we were both barely beyond being “kids”—at least by today’s standard of what it means to be a “kid.”  Today, I can appreciate the impact songs such as “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are a’ Changin’” have had on my generation especially.

What I don’t take for granted is that the younger generation, the “kids” I teach today, can appreciate, much less have heard of, the lyrics of those songs. I don’t believe they would find Dylan’s music or even Paxton’s music inspiring.  Their clarion call for a change in the status quo wouldn’t seem relevant to them or even “cool.”

Richard Sahn teaches sociology and embodies the mission of Bracing Views.  In his own way, he’s as cool as Dylan.

“Unquestionably Syme Will Be Vaporized”: Lessons from Orwell’s 1984

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W.J. Astore

Syme is a minor character in George Orwell’s “1984.”  A philologist, Syme works on the Eleventh Edition of the Newspeak dictionary, “the definitive edition” according to him.  What’s fascinating is Orwell’s description of the intent and main functions of Newspeak, as given by Syme in this passage:

“You think … our chief job is inventing new words. But not a bit of it! We’re destroying words—scores of them, hundreds of them, every day. We’re cutting language down to the bone … You don’t grasp the beauty of the destruction of words. Do you know that Newspeak is the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every year?”

“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thought-crime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten … Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller… The Revolution will be complete when the language is perfect…”

“Even the literature of the Party will change. Even the slogans will change. How could you have a slogan like ‘freedom is slavery’ when the concept of freedom has been abolished? The whole climate of thought will be different. In fact there will be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking—not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.”

This brilliant passage by Orwell sends chills up my spine.  There will be no thought.  Orthodoxy means not thinking.  Is this not in fact true of many people today, content to express unquestioning and unwavering obedience to “the Party,” like the people who support Donald Trump simply because he says he’ll make America great again?

After Syme’s oration on Newspeak, Winston Smith, the main protagonist of “1984,” thinks to himself: “Syme will be vaporized. He is too intelligent. He sees too clearly and speaks too plainly. The Party does not like such people. One day he will disappear. It is written in his face.”

A couple of pages later, Syme makes another penetrating observation:

“There is a word in Newspeak … I don’t know whether you know it: duckspeak, to quack like a duck. It is one of those interesting words that have two contradictory meanings. Applied to an opponent, it is abuse; applied to someone you agree with, it is praise.”

To this observation, Winston thinks to himself: “Unquestionably Syme will be vaporized.”

Why?  Orwell notes that Syme is a Party zealot, a true believer.  But what he lacks, Orwell makes clear, is unconsciousness.  Syme is too self-aware, and speaks too plainly, therefore he must go.  And indeed later in the book he does disappear.

(As an aside, I like Orwell’s reference to some of Syme’s fatal flaws: that he “read too many books” and “frequented … [the] haunt of painters and musicians.”  Yes: books and the arts are indeed the enemy of unconscious orthodoxy in any state.)

The other day, a reader sent to me the following unattributed saying:  We build our houses out of words, then we live in them.

In “1984,” the Party sought total control over language, over words, as a way of dominating people’s consciousness.

One of my favorite sayings of Orwell, also from “1984” and one I always shared with my students, goes something like this: Who controls the past controls the future.  Who controls the present controls the past.

I think you could add to that: Who controls the language, the very words with which we communicate and think, controls the present.

Language is the key, a point Orwell brilliantly makes through the character of Syme in “1984.”

Why Fund the Arts and Humanities?

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W.J. Astore

Federal funding for the arts and humanities often comes under attack, notably from conservative quarters when a particular artistic expression is considered to be objectionable.  Cut the NEH and NEA (national endowments for the humanities and arts), Paul Ryan says, and we can save a whopping $335 million a year (slightly more than the cost of one F-35 jet fighter for the Marine Corps).

What are the humanities and the arts, after all?  Why should the government fund them? Can’t we let the marketplace rule?  Won’t good art find an audience (and patrons) without the government getting involved?

Art and the humanities?  Well, they are what make us human.  Art and music and dance and theater, but also our history, literature, languages, poetry, and so on.  Art and the humanities teach us about the human condition — what it means to be human.  So, in a way, religion is also part of the arts and humanities in the secular sense of the history of various belief systems, what they teach us about morality and ethics, as well as their iconography, music, and so on.

As a personal aside, I’m sure my first true artistic/humanistic experience came in my local Catholic church.  The splendor of light streaming through stained glass windows, the intricacy of the architecture, the majesty of the altar, the beauty of the music: all of this and more represented an artistic and humanistic experience that resonated with me, putting me in touch with something larger than myself.  I’ve felt similar majesty being out in the cathedral of nature, gazing out at the Continental Divide at 12,000 feet as clouds raced overhead after a long hike in the Colorado Rockies.

Nurturing and protecting the arts, humanities, and nature too is fundamental to being human.  We should be stewards of beauty in all its forms.  And certainly government must have a role in funding the arts and humanities as well as protecting the planet.

Unfortunately, the American political scene is oligarchical and driven by venality and greed.  So nowadays what you see in education is an obsessive push for STEM, for competitiveness vis-a-vis various foreign countries, for workforce development, as if education can be reduced simply to job/vocational training. Arts and humanities? Humbug!

I have nothing against science, technology, engineering, and math.  I majored in mechanical engineering as an undergraduate, loved calculus and differential equations, took several courses in physics and chemistry, and eventually got advanced degrees in the history of science and technology. Science is great and wonderful; technology is fascinating and much needed. Vocational training is important too.

But there’s more to life than getting a job.

Oligarchical powers don’t like to fund the arts and humanities.  They’d rather fund business and industry in the name of competitiveness (and profit!). But there’s more to life than building things, crunching numbers, and working for the man. We have souls, if you will (there’s the Catholic in me), and our souls need to be nurtured by ideas and ideals, by beauty, by the angels of our better natures as represented by the arts and humanities.

So please act to save the arts and humanities, especially in our schools. They enrich our lives in ways you simply can’t measure with dollar signs.  And please act to preserve nature and our planet as well, whether you see it as God’s creation or as spaceship Earth — or both.

The Yearly Federal Budget for Planned Parenthood: About the Cost of Two F-35 Fighter Jets

Misleading and dishonest chart shown at Congressional hearing to attack Planned Parenthood
Misleading and dishonest chart shown at Congressional hearing to attack Planned Parenthood

W.J. Astore

My wife and I were talking about the Republican attack on Planned Parenthood and how ludicrous it is in the grand scheme of things.  The Federal Government contributes just over $500 million to the budget of Planned Parenthood.  That’s the equivalent of two F-35 jet fighters to support vitally important health services provided at 700 clinics across the country.  Talk about bang for the buck!

If a person playing with a full deck had to make a choice, which would she choose to fund: basic medical and information services for nearly three million Americans each year, or two underperforming F-35 jet fighters?  Indeed, for the projected cost of the F-35 program, you could easily fund Planned Parenthood for more than 2000 years!

Speaking of Planned Parenthood, it’s reassuring to know such centers and clinics exist, especially given how squeamish Americans are, generally speaking, about sex.  Planned Parenthood provides invaluable services at low cost, but I guess Congress prefers funding extraneous jet fighters at sky-high cost.

The true chart for the services rendered by Planned Parenthood is below, courtesy of Politifact.  The false chart had been used to suggest Planned Parenthood was increasing abortions and decreasing cancer screening services.  But a decline in cancer screening is due mainly to changes in frequency of pap smears, and abortion rates have held steady across time.  Note all of the other services provided, to include screening for STDs.

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Of course, phony charts and Congressional hearings are all about politics and hot button issues like abortion.  Hysterical opposition to Planned Parenthood is a cynical exercise in emotional manipulation by disinformation and scare-mongering.  The sad thing is how easily it gains traction in our country.

Even as Republican men (yes — it’s mostly men) beat their collective chests about Planned Parenthood, consider that the Federal Budget (discretionary) for FY 2016 is $1.168 trillion.  Recall that total federal funding for Planned Parenthood is a mere $500 million.  If this was shown on a pie chart, the budgetary piece for Planned Parenthood would not be a slice; not even a sliver.  It would be a flake off of the crust.

Compare this to defense spending, Homeland Security, and war funding, which constitutes more than half the federal pie (discretionary spending), and which a Republican Congress wants to increase.  Still think we should focus on flakes off the crust of the pie?

For shame, Congress.  For shame, all of us, for allowing our politics to be manipulated by liars, opportunists, and ignoramuses.

(Note: Planned Parenthood “provides sexual and reproductive health care, education, information, and outreach to more than five million women, men, and adolescents worldwide each year.  2.7 million women and men in the United States annually visit Planned Parenthood affiliate health centers for trusted health care services and information.”  Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?  Except that it’s true.)

Education as Workforce Development: The Horror

Scott Walker: We don't need no higher education (photo courtesy of Slate)
Scott Walker: We don’t need no higher education (photo courtesy of Slate)

W.J. Astore

A strong trend in higher education today is to sell education as workforce development.  I saw this at the college where I used to teach, which was unsurprising given that the college started as a technical institute in a conservative area.  My college proudly advertised itself as valuing partnerships with business and industry, with a “learn to earn” emphasis, so students and parents knew what they were getting when they made their choice.

But the “education as workforce development” ethos is now spreading to universities and states like Wisconsin, driven by Republican governors and administrations keen to put those pointy-headed intellectuals, with their high-falutin’ ideas about education as a pursuit of truth, firmly in their place.  Consider this article at Alternet, and the following passage about Governor Scott Walker’s ideological war on higher education in his state:

Scott Walker has it out for the University of Wisconsin. The University of Wisconsin is a point of pride for the state at large, to the point where their mascot, the badger, is blanketed over everything Wisconsin-related, including government services that aren’t affiliated with the school. Despite this, Gov. Scott Walker, flushwith confidence after decimating public service unions in Wisconsin, has it out now for the university, apparently not caring that it’s the state’s pride and joy. The goal is to slash a whopping $300 million from the University of Wisconsin system over the next two years.

There may be some lip-smacking about “fiscal conservatism” going on with this, but Walker and his staff haven’t really taken many pains to hide that this is rooted in a deeper hostility to the very idea of knowledge itself. “A harbinger of what Walker might face came in an immediate uproar on social media this month after his staff proposed changing the university’s ethereal focus on the pursuit of truth, known as the ‘Wisconsin Idea,’ to a grittier focus on ‘workforce needs,’” reports theWashington Post. Walker backed off recasting higher education as nothing more than job training after his critics pointed out he is a college dropout, but the fact that this wording change was proposed at all shows that the hostility to education is ideological and has little to nothing to do with saving money.”

Higher education should be dedicated to something higher than the pursuit of a job that serves corporate America.  Heck, even corporate America favors the liberal arts as being invaluable to their bottom line, e.g. in the sense of “soft” skills such as the ability to write and speak clearly, collaborating as a team, fostering creativity and curiosity, and the like.  And this is supported by research, as in this report by the Association of American Colleges & Universities, which “is seriously questioning the drive to turn schools into institutions where the primary mission is offering career and vocational training,” according to a CBS News report:

The report, which was released today, concludes that employers “overwhelmingly” endorse broad learning as the best preparation for long-term career success. Employers who were surveyed for the study said that this broad learning should be an expected part of the course work for all students, regardless of their chosen major or field of study.

More than three out of four employers agreed that every college student should be exposed to the liberal arts and sciences, and employers were nearly unanimous (96 percent) in agreeing that all students should gain knowledge of our democratic institutions, which is done through liberal arts courses.”

 

So, if employers are in favor of liberal arts and the sciences, why are right-wing conservatives like Walker against these subjects?  To ask the question is to answer it.  The push for “workforce development” is all about silencing liberal dissent and squelching critical research.  It’s anti-intellectualism, pure and simple, always a popular trope in America, as Richard Hofstadter noted in his classic book, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.

Keep ’em dumb and obedient, Walker.  Time-servers in the work trenches.  That’s the way to serve Wisconsin as governor.  Next stop: the presidency.  We don’t need any smart people in that job.  No more Jeffersons need apply.  Right, America?

America’s Military Academies Are Seriously Flawed

The Air Force Academy Chapel: God and Fighter Jets
The Air Force Academy Chapel: God and Fighter Jets

W.J. Astore

U.S. military academies are neither Spartan in being dedicated to war, nor are they Athenian in recognizing humanism (even the humanism of war).  They are Archimedean.  They focus on engineering and the machinery of war.  But two millennia ago even Archimedes with his clever war machinery could not save Syracuse from defeat at the hands of Rome.

There is a lesson here for America’s military academies – if only they spent more time studying history and the humanities and less time solving equations.  But they do not.  I taught history at the Air Force Academy (AFA) for six years.  My experience?  The AFA was far too focused on STEM subjects (science/tech/engineering/math) to the neglect of history, political science, and the humanities.  Today, America’s military cadets still concentrate on STEM, and they still receive Bachelor of Science degrees, even when they choose to major in subjects like history.

A technical emphasis may make sense for Air Force test pilots or Navy nuclear engineers; it does not make sense for Marine or Army lieutenants patrolling the mountains of Afghanistan.  Nor does it make sense in counterinsurgency warfare and nation-building operations, which involve soft skills and judgment rather than kinetic action and calculation.  Small wonder that the U.S. military in 2007 had to hire civilian anthropologists to teach the troops that winning is not only about hammering the enemy with superior firepower.

Emerging from an engineering mindset, young officers are too number-oriented, too rule-bound, too risk-averse.  U.S. military officers, old as well as young, tend to think geopolitical problems – even in destabilized cauldrons like Iraq and Afghanistan – are solvable if you identify and manipulate the right variables.  They think history and politics, human and cultural factors, can be controlled or compensated for.

Ever since their service academy days, they have internalized a puzzle-solving mindset, one that is suitable to technocratic hierarchies in which “progress” is measured by metrics.  Their thinking about war is infected by quantification and business-speak in which assets are leveraged and force is optimized.  Reinforcing this impoverished view of war is an officer evaluation system that stresses numbers, numbers, and more numbers, since if it cannot be quantified, it did not happen or does not exist.

When I was an officer and professor teaching history, many military cadets would ask, “What can I do with a History degree?”  They were thinking not in terms of which course of study would make them savvier, more effective, officers and leaders.  They were thinking in terms of which academic major would help them become a pilot (even better: a test pilot or astronaut), or they were thinking which major would make them more marketable once they left the military.

As a result, the vast majority of cadets at the Air Force Academy took two, and only two, history courses: a one-semester survey on world history and another survey course on military history.  (Cadets at West Point take more history courses, but technical subjects are over-stressed there as well.) They had virtually no exposure to U.S. history (unless you count AF heritage or Academy trivia as “history”), but plenty of exposure to thermodynamics, calculus, physics, civil engineering, astronautics, and related technical subjects.  Naturally, an engineering mentality pervaded the air.  Notably absent were critical and sustained studies of recent U.S. military performance.

Combine a reductive, problem-solving approach shared among U.S. military officers with the dominance of lawyers in U.S. governmental systems and you have a recipe for number-crunching rationality and rule-bound conformity.  Solutions, when proffered by such a system, involve cleverness with weapons and Jesuitical reasoning with laws.  A perfect example: America’s high-tech drones and the tortured legal reasoning to sanction their assassination missions.

Educated as engineers and technicians, young officers are deployed to places like Iraq and Afghanistan and charged with negotiating the “human terrain” of cultures utterly foreign to them.  Lacking knowledge of their own history as well as the history of the cultures they walk among, it is hardly surprising that they make little progress, despite hard work and honorable intentions.

Today’s U.S. military likes to fancy itself a collection of warriors, but America is not Sparta.  Today’s military likes to fancy itself the bringers of democracy, but America is not Athens.  Today’s military is Archimedean, infatuated by technology, believing in smart machines and victory achieved through violent action — much like America itself.

But mastery of machines by the military or, for that matter, tortured legalistic gymnastics by civilian commanders, is not in itself sufficient for victory.  Just ask Archimedes at Syracuse, or a US Marine at Fallujah, or even the constitutional lawyer-in-chief at the White House.