Sunday Book Reviews – 4/7/19

Bookshelf books, photo by Alien Motives

It’s Very Simple: The True Story of Civil Rights by Alan Stang (Western Islands, 1965)

The more things change…

The author of It’s Very Simple has a clear explanation for his expertise: he lived in Harlem while writing his first articles on civil rights. If that doesn’t seem like a strong argument for expertise, you’re on firm ground.

Stang was a significant force in the John Birch Society of the 1960s and 1970s, and his influence is explained in these pages. He lays out a case for much of the American civil rights movement being little more than a ruse by the Soviets to cause internal divisions, and argues that what is needed is not civil rights, but rather more capitalism.

In one way, his arguments are convincing: it is absolutely true that limiting a pool of talent based on race is destructive to a company, but the extrapolation – that therefore no successful companies would limit their talent pool – was inane in the 1960s. It’s also very true that the many connections between civil rights leaders and communist agitators did exist.

On the other hand, when all companies are bypassing talent, none gains an advantage, and racism was institutionalized in many industries. Also, when people are attempting to gather strength toward a movement, they are likely to initiate contacts with everyone available to see what aid can be received at what price – it’s called diplomacy.

The arguments used in this book held more water when they were regurgitated by some of the more aggressive talk radio hosts in the post-Reagan era, when many in the country believed that the great racial division was thankfully in the past. The reintegration of Bircher theory into the Republican platform has instead cast shade on the motivations of those who promoted those arguments in the 1990s and 2000s.

The book contains extensive endnoting, which seems impressive until the writing style is examined. Using a trick familiar to those who have read similar works, the notes consistently reference quotes and articles which are incorrectly represented as having meanings that support the author’s position.

The book’s failings are exemplified in the penultimate chapter, where Stang explains in detail why the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama was almost certainly not the work of KKK members but rather the work of Soviets or black activists working to further their agenda. Instead of being called “The Agent Provocateur” it could have been called “Fake News”.

It’s an interesting work, and cheap to purchase. Its value should be as a warning about the allure of self-certainty and the need to challenge existing beliefs with reason. Instead it seems to be an example of how easily people forget even recent history.

Closely Watched Trains by Bohumil Hrabal (1965, Ceskoslovensky Spisovatel)

This short novel (91 pages in the American translation) is a satirical piece of dark humor set in the fading days of World War II. There are three topical threads which twist through the book: responsibility, sex, and violence. Toward the beginning of the book, all are played broadly; one example is the narrator’s recollection of his grandfather, a self-taught hypnotist who attempted to stop German tanks from invading their town by standing in front of them and commanding them with his mind. He succeeds in stopping the lead tank, but only because his head becomes wedged in its tread.

The book walks a fine line with its unpleasant scenes, painting an image of destruction and pain under German occupation but limiting the reader’s exposure to short scenes; it achieves this effect by focusing exclusively on a young worker at a train station. The man, Milos, interacts with the other workers and visitors to the station while seeing indications of the German occupation in the trains as they travel through or stop to collect and dispense passengers.

Meanwhile, Milos is repeatedly distracted by the sexual escapades of the dispatcher, who has drawn attention for getting a young woman naked and using the various train documentation stamps on her buttocks.

Hrabal is considered to be one of the best Czech authors of the 20th century, due in part to the Academy Award-winning film he helped adapt from this novel. This is an excellent jumping-in point to his works.

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About AlienMotives 1991 Articles
Ex-Navy Reactor Operator turned bookseller. Father of an amazing girl and husband to an amazing wife. Tired of willful political blindness, but never tired of politics. Hopeful for the future.