RivkaT (rivkat) wrote,
RivkaT
rivkat

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I had an amazing fannish day, including more promised cliche-fic and a reviewing of Pirates of the Carribean in which the greater-than-average-intelligence of the script was more clear than on first exposure. Unfortunately, I have yet to do anything about my faculty presentation on Tuesday, and I really need to circulate a paper first thing Monday, so it will be a busy Sunday. Of course, that's not going to stop me from writing the truly awful cliche-fic that staggered out from the deepest recesses of my brain like the bastard child of Frankenstein's monster and the Swamp Thing.

But first, a lot of books, most about history:
Stanley Fish, There's No Such Thing as Free Speech and It's a Good Thing Too: Fish is a controversial figure in both English and law, an interesting combination in itself. (Other good titles include Is There a Text in This Class?) This is a collection of essays from the late eighties and early nineties, covering affirmative action, First Amendment law, Milton studies, academic life, and other trivialities. There's a lot of repetition, but he's a good writer. Aside from some helpful points about the First Amendment, the part of the book that made me think most was about affirmative action, not because of its argument but its context.

Anybody remember when the alternative to race-based affirmative action was class-based affirmative action, not the 10% plan? What happened to change one to the other? My intuition is that American discomfort with the concept of class made class-based affirmative action almost as distasteful to the relevant constituencies. (In addition, my colleague RP pointed out that, given both the size of the white population and the disparities in test scores at every income level, class-based affirmative action just wouldn't help many African-Americans unless it were used to constitute, say, 50% of the college class; one of the benefits of race-based affirmative action for colleges is that you can limit it to 5% and admit everyone else on the basis of likelihood of large donations to the alumni fund.) So now the alternative is the 10% plan, which relies on both racial and economic segregation at the high school level to get diversity in the college class. It's proposed precisely for that reason, which is to say its adoption would be based on race -- unconstitutionally so, if affirmative action is unconstitutional. It's another way of avoiding confronting the huge disparities in educational opportunities offered to America's children. At least the class-based alternative admitted that, in America, we do have a class system.

Peter Drahos with John Braithwaite, Information Feudalism: Who Owns the Knowledge Economy: There are two parts to this book, though the authors don't quite seem to know that. One is a history of the negotiation of TRIPs, the Trade Related aspects of Intellectual Property agreement, as part of GATT, making copyright, trademark and patent rights conditions of participation in the global trading system. They give a good, if overly detailed, explanation of how US negotiators, pushed by US businesses, put intellectual property on the trade agenda despite resistance from basically everyone else and then push-pulled the other countries into agreement. As a matter of international relations, the US strategy was spectacularly successful. The second part of the story is that the authors think that broad IP rights are bad, and though I tend to agree with them they are far short of having enough evidence. There are many patents; very few of them are for tropical diseases; AIDS drugs are expensive. With all this I can agree, but it is far from clear that there would be more tropical disease drugs without patent rights for Viagra. Useful background for those interested in the politics of international trade, but not much else.

John Keegan, Fields of Battle (also known as Warpaths), The Price of Admiralty, The Second World War, Winston Churchill, The Mask of Command, and War and Our World: Keegan's beautiful prose in Six Armies at Normandy spurred me to read more of his work, with mixed results. Fields of Battle, about wars in North America, was the least impressive of the bunch. Keegan organized his sections with the theme of "forts" – a typical Keegan book does three or four different eras and compares and contrasts – and this has two negative effects. First, he focuses only on a small chunk of the Civil War, making his account feel incomplete. Second, he has to switch to "flying fortresses" to get any battle in the twentieth century, and that's stretching.

The Second World War is a basic history text with none of Keegan's rhetorical flair, though I did enjoy the description of Russia's two greatest generals, General December and General January. Winston Churchill is a slender volume most notable for bringing together two great prose stylists. War and Our World is a series of related lectures Keegan gave in the late nineties, and there's nothing much there.

The Price of Admiralty and The Mask of Command are real masterworks, and they're even of fannish interest! The former focuses on four great naval battles, Trafalgar (1805), Jutland (WWI), Midway (WWII), and the Battle of the Atlantic (WWII). Keegan waxes rhapsodic about the strength and power of wooden ships – in seaworthiness, metal ships were actually a step backwards – and tells fascinating stories of naval engagements, though I found the Jutland section hard to follow because I didn't really grasp the differences between various classes of ships. The Mask of Command analyzes the careers of four military leaders, Alexander the Great, the Duke of Wellington, Ulysses S. Grant, and Adolf Hitler. The juxtapositions are fascinating, as each man had characteristics that served him well (at least initially, in Hitler's case) but that would not have suited the others, because of the political and technological circumstances each faced. This is probably Keegan's best book. (Also, I learned that the men of Alexander's circle shaved themselves clean to emulate him, though beards were otherwise de rigeur, and damned if I'm not going to find a way to use that.)

For contrast, Z. had me read Bruce Catton's Mr. Lincoln's Army, which I thought was fine but not stirring. This is the first volume in a trilogy and focuses on the Army of the Potomac during the early years of the Civil War, through Antietam, arguing that the bloody battle was decisive in that it ensured a long and total war ending in the eradication of slavery. McClellan threw away numerous opportunities to win a war-ending battle against the vastly outnumbered Lee; even though Catton is far more sympathetic to McClellan than Keegan is, there are several points in the narrative where you just want to reach out and shake the man by the neck for refusing to fight when numbers and strategy were all on his side. (This is the guy of whom Lincoln famously said, "If McClellan is not using the army, I should like to borrow it for a while.") It wasn't all his fault: it turns out that Allan Pinkerton was not only a union-buster, he was nearly a Union-buster, with his ridiculously inflated estimates of Confederate strength on which McClellan relied. But the Army of the Potomac loved McClellan, and Catton seems to share some of their affection.
Tags: au: drahos, au: fish, au: keegan, highly recommended, nonfiction, reviews, su: law, su: military history
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