Wednesday, December 3, 2014

"Advocating Against Advocating"

I read non-fiction books for information.  But on most occasions – actually bordering on all of them – when I am finished, I am not at all certain I’ve been the beneficiary of the entire picture concerning that particular personage, issue or idea.

Maybe I’m asking too much.  (I frequently do, so it is highly possible.)  My innate disappointment in such cases may well be the result of my academic training, where we were fed “facts” and expected to regurgitate them on exams.  (What an unappetizing visual image!  “This student has regurgitated all over his exam paper!”) 

I include “facts” in quotes, not because the ones we were provided were necessarily untrue – in fourteen hundred and ninety-two Columbus did indeed sail the ocean blue – but because, as it turns out, we were never the recipients of the entire, multi-perspectivized story. 

And now I am hungry for it.

I suppose, if I desired a more comprehensive understanding of these matters, I would have to read a number of books on the same subject, ultimately drawing my conclusions from their multifarious points of view. 

Knowing myself as I do, I am aware that that is never going to happen.  There is no way I will read numerous books on the same subject.  I am getting pretty old, and I do not really have the time.  Or, frankly, the inclination.  I mean, what am I, a scholar or something?

Besides – and here comes my excuse beyond my somewhat facetious albeit actuarially accurate “I am getting pretty old” excuse – the above situation is reminiscent of the “Adversarial System” that I dislike in the courtroom; to wit: 

Can “actual truth” result from evidence culled from an unspecified number of one-sided “truths”?   

It’s the same question I asked in Turkey when confronted with the (possibly massively reconstructed) “Ruins of Antiquity”:

How do you really know if what you’re looking at (or, in the above situation, reading) is “The Genuine Article”?

I just finished a book called Quiet by Susan Cain, the subtitle (which seem mandatory these days): “The Power Of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking.”  (Can you imagine:  A Tale of Two Cities:  London and Paris.”  Dickens’ Editor:  “They need to know which ‘two cities’ you are talking about.”)

Ms. Cain premises her book on the belief that …the single most important aspect of personality – ‘the north and south of temperament’ as one scientist puts it – is where we fall on the introvert-extrovert spectrum.”

(AUTHOR’S NOTE:  I respectfully disagree.  To me, the single most important aspect of personality is where we fall not on the introvert-extrovert spectrum but on the optimist-pessimist spectrum.  Just putting that on the record.)

Cain’s (overdue, for me at least) “empowerment manifesto” for introverts is replete with personal case histories (Rosa Parks, Chopin, Dr. Seuss, Steve Wozniak) in which identifiable introverts achieved great things, supplemented by scientific experiments determining which of the two personality categories you are likely to fall under, and how the two specifically differ in behavioral terms. 

The conclusion is – yawn – there is no “better or worse” personality type; both have positive – and negative – connotations. 

Since we live in a country where “extrovert” is admittedly the “Cultural Ideal”, the author’s undisguised agenda is to enthusiastically “balance to books”, her cheerleaderly message:

“Introverts are good too.”  

Which, as an introvert, makes me feel better, while realistically understanding that, in America, it is the “loud and pushy” who will inevitably inherit the earth, or at least the overwhelming proportion of its goodies.  

But hey, thanks for trying.  Although to my sensibilities, Ms. Cain tried maybe a little bit too hard.  (A natural introvert, attempting gamely to tighten the score.)

Simultaneously, I am listening to a book-on-tape entitled “Fallen Founder – the Life of Aaron Burr”, written by Nancy Isenberg. 

The book’s title says it all.  History, attests Ms. Isenberg, has knocked Mr. Burr – one of the unquestionable early leaders of our country – down, and Ms. Isenberg has taken it upon herself to provide supportive evidence that will raise this unjustly maligned American back up.  

Virtually from Page 1 – or Disc One for those, like me, listening on their Sony Discman – there is a pugnaciously revisionist tone to Ms. Isenberg’s writing, the author’s determined intention:  To portray her book’s eponymous character as,

“Historically misunderstood.”

Except, you know,

What if Burr wasn’t historically misunderstood?  What if he was a certifiable scalawag?  (Or a complicated amalgam?)  And Isenberg’s book is an insidious “whitewashing”, akin to, say,

My Father Al, by Beverly Capone. 

“Advocacy” books, like Quiet and Fallen Founder, are, by definition one-sided, although the writers, through their accumulated evidence, adamantly insist they’re “the truth.” 

The thing is, a sensitive reader, meaning of course myself – which, according to Ms. Cain, consigns me to the “introvert” contingent, introverts being characteristically “sensitive” and “readers” – a sensitive reader will easily smoke out “Ideological Bias.” 

A preferential “thumb on the scale” is detectable throughout both narratives.  And many others I have read as well.  Who knows?  Maybe that is simply the way it is.

What I am energetically advocating here is not to advocate.  (Which is an egregious contradiction, but come on, I am almost finished.) 

How about, instead, an objective and as accurate as possible delineation of the person, idea or moment in history from differing perspectives in the same book? 

(Being a foreigner to publishing, I am not certain this is a marketable position.) 

I’d buy that book.  Although, representing all perspectives, it would probably have a distressingly daunting number of pages.   

Aaron Burr: ‘Everything We Could Find On Him.’”

That’s a big book.

Do you think they could sell more than one copy of that book, and that one unquestionably “on tape”, because it would be too heavy for me to lift?

Possibly not.

But that is the book I would like to read.  

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