What else do I use Facebook for, besides communication with friends and family?
Right up there near the top must surely be this: as a writing platform. Writing is to a large extent the way I think, and I like getting my thoughts out of my head and onto some external medium. Moreover, I'm enough of a writer, or perhaps "performer," that I want my words to be seen. My writing is also my brain's equivalent of an external hard drive: a place to store wildly eclectic information for later retrieval—made possible in large measure, I must grudgingly admit, to Google's excellent search capabilities.
Searching is why Facebook is not a good place for writing: retrieving what I have once written is difficult to impossible. Finding what someone else has written is even harder. Facebook's place in my writing habit is primarily threefold:
- What someone else has written will often stimulate thoughts, which I often publish in the form of a comment. The danger of this is that it can all too easily be much too long for the medium, and it's all too easy to hijack someone else's post for my own ideas. (A little of that is good, but I tend to take it too far. One reason I never got hooked on Twitter is that I can't say anything in fewer than 140 words, let alone characters. I tried for a while....) But sometimes the seeds planted develop into posts of my own.
Is Facebook the best or only tool for this use?
Certainly not. Inspiration for writing is everywhere, and there are far more thoughts stimulating my brain than will ever make their way into print.
- Linking to my blog posts from Facebook has opened my work to a greater audience, despite the fact that my blog is public and my Facebook limited to a relatively small circle of friends. Years ago, Facebook had a facility for cross-posting that didn't work well for me, but for a long time now I have been posting to Facebook links to individual blog posts, with maybe a short comment (because I hate it when people just post links without a few words of introduction to tell me why they think the link is valuable).
Is Facebook the best or only tool for this use?
I already know that it can't replace my own blog: I have Faithful Readers who do not use Facebook. And if that weren't enough, I would be thoroughly convinced that I need my own platform by a recent incident in which Facebook deleted my 9/11 tribute, saying it violated their community standards. Is that a community I should remain part of?
Certainly anyone who clicks to my blog through Facebook could get there directly. But it would remove some of the convenience, and eliminate the readers who might be intrigued by a particular post title here and there, but not enough to visit my blog itself with any frequency. It's still an easy way to make my words available to more people.
It also provides more feedback. Those "Like" buttons make it easy to let someone know you've read what they've written, and there's no way to do that on my blog except by leaving a comment, which many people don't like to do. Plus, even of comments I usually get more on Facebook. But that can be part of the problem, too. I'm human: I like to hear when my words have been well received. Not so much when they haven't—I'm not getting paid so I can't be like the columnist who insisted he didn't mind getting hate mail, because it meant his column was being read, which was all that mattered to his employers. But after I've posted a link on Facebook I do find myself checking the app more frequently, to see who has read and reacted to my post. I like those little dopamine hits as much as anyone. But it's probably not a good thing.
Conclusion? If I were to abandon Facebook altogether, I could manage without this. My blog was never about getting widespread publicity anyway. I like for my words to be a blessing to people—as some have said they are—but flying under the radar is more my ambition than going viral. If my decision is to keep Facebook but greatly reduce its hold on me, howere, I think this is something I would keep. If, that is, I can convince myself that I don't need to know now when someone has reacted to my post—a day or even a week later will do.
- Finally, Facebook provides a place for the small, off-the-cuff comments that are fun but don't seem worthy of a blog post: "Hi, everyone! We're enjoying the Food & Wine Festival at EPCOT!" "Here's an inspiring quote I found." "The president said WHAT?" More chit-chat than conversation. I don't mean to belittle it; there's a place for chit-chat in the glue that holds relationships together.
Is Facebook the best or only tool for this use?
I have to admit that it's a good one, and I would miss it. With family I could (and often do) substitute WhatsApp, since we have a lively group there. But when deprived of personal contact, by distance or pandemic, there's some value here that I don't know how to replace. For many, even most, of my Facebook friends it probably doesn't matter a bit, but there is a subset for which I think it does. Maybe not enough benefit for the cost, however. And of course there's always the possiblity certainty that some such comments (e.g. the political ones) do more harm than good....
Those of us who lived through what I think of as the "Carter Inflation" have a deep-seated fear of that economic disaster, and a greater fear that more recent generations don't take it seriously enough. (To be fair to President Carter, presidents get more blame and take more credit than they deserve for economic conditions. I think Carter, a good man, was a bad president with policies that made inflation worse, but it's far from exclusively his fault.)
Inflation under Carter was not a disaster for us, personally, since it was a time when salaries and investment income appeared to be increasing at a great rate. That felt good, though it only meant that we were barely keeping up with rising prices. It was not so merciful to people without good jobs and investments. We also knew enough history to fear the devastation inflation had caused in other times and places.
You might understand, then, why am frustrated when I hear reports of "inflation indices" that say we are experiencing little or no inflation—when I know darn well that prices in the grocery store have been rising steadily for a long time, most "half-gallon" ice cream packages now hold only three pints, and the price of automobiles has exploded through the roof.
I read with interest the article by John Mauldin called "Nose Blind to Inflation." It's long and gets complicated and I did start skimming as I neared the end, but it says a lot about the factors that go into determining a currency's inflation rate—and why it's so hard to come up with numbers that mean anything at all. As my economist husband says, it is important to understand that inflation is not a mathematically provable number, but rather a statistically, approximated number. Moreover, the numbers that are published are not immune to political pressure.
I'm not even going to try to guess what is going to happen to our currency now that the pandemic has encouraged us to hemorrhage money that we don't have and drive our national debt well beyond the stratosphere. Far more knowledgeable people than I haven't a clue.
But I can't resist one quote from the article, which begins the section on an inflation calculation factor called hedonic adjustment.
That’s where they modify the price change because the product you buy today is of higher quality than the one they measured in the past.
This is most evident in technology. The kind of computer I used back in the 1980s cost about $4,000. The one I have now, on which I do similar work (writing) was about $1,600. So, my computer costs dropped 40%. But no, today’s computer isn’t remotely comparable to my first one. It is easily a thousand times more powerful. So the price for that much computing power has dropped much more than 60%. It’s probably 99.9%.
The economists pull the same slight of hand with automobiles, and television sets, and any product in which it is claimed that you are getting more value for your money, and therefore it shouldn't count as a price increase. Which is utter nonsense. (I put the point a little more strongly when I first read about the concept.)
Sure, I often like the "improvements" that have supposedly added value to the item I am purchasing, but the real value of a car is that it gets me from A to B, and why must I pay for all the extra bells and whistles if that's all I want? It reminds me of a housing developer I know, who was chided for not providing more "affordable housing." "I could make housing affordable for everyone," he replied, "If people were willing to live in the kind of homes their grandparents did. But now that won't even begin to pass code."
So sure, go ahead and make things "new and improved." But if I can no longer buy the original version, don't try to sell me the bill of goods that when the price goes up it's really a price decrease.
This is for our children, and others of later generations who may find it difficult to fathom how great was the pressure on my generation to have no more than two (and preferably fewer) children. It was real. I'm ashamed to have given in, but it was the sea in which we all swam; it was the unquestioned Science of the day; it was the Way Things Were Done. It's a true story that some people would pray for multiples the second time around, so they could have more than two children and still be held blameless. ("Selective reduction" was not a thing back then.) Moreover, I was less inclined to fight against the tide of my peers back then—we who came of age in the late 60's and early 70's were too busy concentrating on pushing back against those who had come before us.
The following is extracted from a George Friedman Geopolitical Futures essay, "Variations on Apocalypse," published February 13 of this year. He nails the sentiment of the times—which lasted long beyond the supposed apocalypse year of 1970—exactly.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s there was an intense belief held by the best minds that humanity was on the eve of destruction. Rock music was written with this title. The cause of this catastrophe was overpopulation. By 1970, the Club of Rome, a highly respected gathering of the best and brightest, said the world would no longer be able to feed itself and would be running out of natural resources. Unless humanity repented of the sin of reproduction, it would annihilate itself. This was a belief that could not be challenged, and those who said not only that it was untrue but that the birthrate would soon plummet were dismissed. The coming apocalypse was written in stone, and those who would challenge it either were mad or would profit from the apocalypse.
What always struck me about this, and virtually every class I took included at least one lecture on this, was that those who argued the apocalyptic view were not actually frightened by it. They loved the role of Jeremiah. They awaited it with the faith of the righteous and, I suspect, were looking forward to the last moment, when they could scream, "I told you so."
It's easy to see one's past mistakes, but much, much more difficult to discern which of today's "certainties" we will be regretting in the future. I haven't a clue, but I suspect that the first place to look should be among (1) ideas and practices that are so much a part of our own culture—meaning primarily the culture of our peers—that we never think to question them; (2) ideas and practices for which dissent is discouraged, mocked, or even forbidden; and especially ideas and practices that make us feel morally superior to others.
Yes, I am thankful for the rain. I love the thunderstorms with their deluges, normal for this time of year. And I'm grateful for the long, soaking rains of the kind we usually only get when there's a tropical storm off the coast but which have been nearly continuous all summer. The Floridan aquifer really needs the boost.
Nonetheless, I've decided I don't want to live in the Pacific Northwest.
My father's grandfather moved his family from Baraboo, Wisconsin to Sumner, Washington in the early 1890's. Sumner is just outside of Seattle, where it rains on average 152 days a year. So you'd think rain was in our blood. However, my father himself grew up in Pullman, Washington, where his father taught mechanical engineering at what was then Washington State College. Pullman is in the desert side of the state.
We have had so many days of rain this summer that I'm expecting to break out in mushrooms any day now. At the very least a severe case of mildew. After I've been outside for a while, I want someone to pick me up and wring me out like a piece of laundry. With six active tropical storms on our horizon, I don't expect things to dry out anytime soon.
I'm indeed grateful for the rain—and for the roof over our heads and the air conditioner that together provide a refuge that is both cool and dry.
Facebook banned my 9/11 tribute post on the grounds that it violates their Community Standards. Fortunately, I'm the censor here.
It was our younger daughter who started it, asking my why I spend time on Facebook. Really, the nerve of our children! Doesn't she remember that she was the one who induced me to join, and who made the first comment on what was then called my "wall"? Back in 2007 that was, and I was entranced by the ease with which I could keep in touch with famiy and friends, and by the ability to find and be found by people who would otherwise have faded out of our lives, or at best become once-a-year-at-Christmas contacts.
But nearly thirteen years have passed since I took those first steps into the world of social media, and I've accepted her challenge to re-evaluate. It came in response to my admiration of our eldest grandson, who had recently made a clean break with a couple of time-consuming activities. They were fun, but the pandemic shutdown revealed to him that he was no longer growing through them. Facebook provided many new opportunities when I first joined, but perhaps there are better uses of my time. "Good" can hardly be considered good enough if it keeps "better" at bay.
Back when we gave up television, there wasn't a lot said about the dangerous nature of the medium; if people complained it was generally about poor content: the "vast wasteland." Marie Winn was one of only a handful who saw the problem as systemic. One day, I wandered with my bibliophile father into a small bookstore in Wayne, Pennsylvania, and in my browsing happened upon her book, The Plug-In Drug, which changed our lives forever. There's no need for such a chance encounter now: googling "Facebook addiction" or "why you should quit social media" will flood you with more information than you can handle.
But I'll leave all that serious stuff about how the intrusiveness of social media, and even something as old-school as e-mail, literally changes our brains, making it very difficult for us to focus on tasks that require sustained attention and hard work. And I'll skip the disturbing part about how all media, from Facebook to news shows to plain ol' TV have been consciously altered to make them as addictive as casino gambling. As I said, you can find out more than you want to know about that with some simple online queries. To my embarrassment, I can see those frightening effects clearly in my own life, but it's enough at the moment to ask, Why do I use Facebook? What do I get out of it? How do I give to others through it? Am I accomplishing anything worthwhile, or just being entertained? What activities in my life are being displaced by social media?Are there other, more helpful and/or less harmful, activities that could be used to accomplish whatever good I see in Facebook?
Not everyone uses Facebook for the same reasons, or in the same way. As they say, your mileage may vary—by a lot.
Facebook began for me as a means of communication with family and friends. Many years ago, when we first moved to Florida, I started sending a more frequent version of a Christmas letter to keep in touch with those we had left behind. First the typewriter, then later the word processor, made it possible to write more content, more frequently, and to more people than I ever did when all my notes were hand-written. Facebook was simply a logical extension of that move.
And for a while it worked well. I could see photos of family and friends, and hear about what our grandchildren were up to. (For the latter, our children's blogs were actually more useful, but eventually those updates stopped and Facebook became more important.) But guess what? Our children have all dropped out of Facebook. None of our grandchildren have social media accounts of any sort, nor do I expect them to. Our nephews still have Facebook accounts, but rarely use them. A few other family members use Facebook occasionally, and there are a couple for whom Facebook is our primary means of communication. But nearly all of the sharing of photos and activities is now done via WhatsApp. Yes, I'm aware that WhatsApp is owned by Facebook, but that's a separate issue. For most, though not 100%, of our family, I think I could disregard Facebook and do as well or better. The same is true for closer friends, those with whom we would keep in touch, even if just once a year, no matter what.
But I have developed a whole new level of friendship on Facebook: something greater than mere acquaintance, though far from what we introverts call real friends. In fact, it's quite an odd form of friendship, in which we learn details about each others' lives that real friends might take years to reveal in person—yet these are people we haven't seen in decades, or maybe have never met at all. One of my first Facebook friends was a (now very much grown up) little girl I haven't seen since the 1980's. To this day she will, every once in a while, "like" one of my Facebook posts.
There are others who became Facebook friends long before we ever met, usually because they were a friend of a friend and we found something in common through our comments on that friend's posts. I suppose it's like going to a party at a friend's house and meeting a new friend there—but for me, much more fun than a party.
When I met a first cousin once removed for the first time at a memorial service, it was especially helpful to have already become acquainted with her and her family via Facebook. When our church called a new priest, I felt almost instantly comfortable with him after he arrived, because I had already gotten to know him some on Facebook. It's still the case that Facebook provides more interaction than I've ever had before with a pastor. It's casual, can be accomplished at times convenient to all, and is done in writing, which is always my preferred form of expression.
That's more than enough ruminating for now, though there are many more aspects of my relationship with Facebook to consider. One thing has become clear: When it comes to some relationships and communication, I would do no worse, and maybe better, if I drop Facebook and put my energy into other areas. And certainly these are the people who deserve the greater share of my time and attention. Yet I'm not willing at this point to drop the new friends and the casual friends, who expand my horizons and provide much-needed encouragement, as I hope I do for them.
The question then, becomes this: Can I radically reduce my Facebook time and attention and not lose those connections? It there something less than total abandonment of social media that will enable me to concentrate on my highest priorities? Is this an "if your right hand causes you to sin..." issue?
Still thinking about that one. There is still much more to consider.
We gave up television in the early 1980's, when we began noticing its negative effects on our toddler. That was a struggle, but to this day I hold it as one of our best parenting decisions ever.
Television had sneaked into our lives in a frog-and-kettle way. My family didn't even own a TV set until I was seven years old, and it received a grand total of four stations: three VHF and one UHF. All was black and white, of course. The influence of the medium in our lives grew only gradually, but by the time my much younger sister was in middle school, she had her own TV in her bedroom.
My television addiction—that's not too strong a word—was effectively broken in college, when the only way to see a show was halfway across campus in the student lounge; it simply was not worth the effort. My husband was deprived of this cold-turkey blessing, since one of his roommates owned a set. Thus after we were married it took the kick-in-the-pants of parenting to get us to make the break.
Television has since become quite a different beast, both for better and for worse, and I acknowledge that the medium has its usefulness. Still, I'm 100% certain that our grandchildren are far better off for growing up in television-free homes.
However, "television" as I once knew it has evolved into audio-visual media of incredible variety, now far more useful and far more dangerous. Our grandchildren may not have television sets, and their "media time" may be restricted, but computers, Kindles, and tablets are still important in their lives.
The use of computers and other "screens" has sneaked up on subsequent generations the way television did on mine. Many parents are as concerned about it all as I was with television, but the option of giving it up completely just isn't there, unless you can live self-sufficiently somewhere in the back of beyond. The new media are even more addictive, and much more time-consuming, than good ol' broadcast TV ever was. But they are too useful to give up completely.
Which leaves us with control as the only practical option, and control is always harder than abstention.
Despite the lengthy introduction, the issue for this post is not how to control media for children, for whom I no longer have any direct responsibility, but for myself.
I'm certain I spend too much time sitting at the computer, but that is where my work is. Not that I'm being paid to work in an office, staring at a screen. But my writing, my genealogical research, my archivists' work, and much of the nitty-gritty of everyday life takes place using the computer/phone. I'm not ready to give up so much of what I consider to be valuable work. And when your children and grandchildren live far away, electronic media is an incalculable blessing.
But something has to give. I'm at the time of life when I need to make sure I'm using my allotted span wisely. Really, that should be all the times of our lives; it just hits home harder when you must face the certainty that you are not going to live another 50 years.
What's the best use of my time? Too big a question. What's the best use of my time on the computer? Better, but still too big to start with. What's the best use for me of social media? Now that's something I might be able to sink my teeth into.
Stay tuned for Facebook: The Challenge.
Recently I stumbled upon The Conservative Student's Survival Guide. It's a five-minute video offering advice to—you guessed it—conservative students who find themselves a despised minority on liberal college campuses. That's no joke: for all the talk you'll hear from academia about tolerance, liberal values, and minority rights, it's a jungle out there if your particular minority isn't currently in favor, and it seems the only status more dangerous than "conservative student" on most American campuses is "conservative faculty." It was true when we were in college, it was true when our children were in college—and everything I see leads me to believe the situation is far, far worse now.
What's surprising about this video is that, unlike much that comes from both Left and Right these days, it is calm, well-reasoned, and respectful. What's more, even though it's aimed at conservative students, any thoughtful person who wants to make the most of his college experience would do well to consider this advice.
The speaker is Matthew Woessner, a Penn State political science professor. All of his seven suggestions make sense, but my top three are these:
- Avoid pointless ideological battles. It's not your job to convert your professors or your fellow students. Discuss and debate, but don't push too hard.
- Choose [your classes and your major] wisely. I was a liberal atheist in college, but much on campus was too far Left even for me. Being a student of the hard sciences saved me from a great deal of the insanity that was going on in the humanities and social sciences departments. A quarter-century later, one of our daughters found some of the same relief as an engineering major. Our other daughter, however, discovered that life at a music conservatory was quite difficult—despite the name, conservative values were not welcome.
- Work hard—college faculty value hard-working, enthusiastic students. I'd say this is the most valuable of all his points. Excellence and enthusiasm are attractive. A student who participates respectfully in class, does the work, and learns the material will gain the respect and appreciation of most of his professors. Teachers are like that.
A friend recently posted a sign which said, "Trump took ... the united out of the United States."
The illogical falseness of that statement jumped out at me, and believe me, my friend is smart, so I know she must also have seen it. Most memes of that sort aren't even trying to be logical; they're trying to make a point.
Nonetheless, my first reaction was to ... react. To respond with a comment.
Then I remembered that I am fed up with arguing, and am trying a new approach.
When I comment on someone else's blog, or social media post, I am stepping into his space and time. Would I ring my neighbor's doorbell and tell him, "I see you're getting your house painted; that's a terrible color!" I think I can do better than that. If I have no positive comment to make, much better I should say nothing at all. That doesn't mean I'm going to stop commenting—I know myself too well for that—but I hope to be more positive, more relevant, and more personal when I do, conscious that I am walking through someone else's yard.
My own space, however, is a different story. Here, on my blog, or on my own Facebook page—that's where my own opinions belong. If people find my posts interesting, or helpful, I'm glad. If they do not, they are free to walk away. When I first began writing this blog, I had hopes that it would become (among other things) a forum for debate and discussion of issues. Now that I've seen what that looks like on Facebook, I'm rather glad it mostly has not. The more experience I have, the more I realize that people long for information, and can be persuaded by information—especially when accompanied by personal testimony—but are rarely moved, except possibly in the opposite direction, by argument and debate. Maybe it wasn't always so, but it certainly is now.
Back to the original inspiration for this post: the idea that President Trump had divided America. I think that's completely wrong.
The election of President Trump, if you will, is evidence that America is divided. All close elections are. When you win a close election, the first thing you should realize is that half of the country is unhappy about your victory. Even should you win an astonishing 75% of the vote, you still will have ticked off a quarter of the voters.
America has always been a country of deeply-felt and deeply-divided opinions. Even a small study of history—in my case, genealogy—makes that obvious. The difference now, as I see it, is that instead of expressing our opinions to a few neighbors, we tell them to the world.
As I do here.
Perhaps I am as guilty as President Trump of dividing America.
Here's a Pearls Before Swine comic, from August 26, 2018, still appropriate to the day. (Straight from our refrigerator to you.)
I needed to hear this. The speech itself is about paying reparations for slavery, and it's a good one, but you can ignore that part. That's not the point of this post and I don't want it to turn into a discussion of that issue. Agree, seethe, fume, cheer, ignore—whatever you want. Just keep that part to yourself.
I've started the embedded video at about the 4:50 point, at Elder's description of what it was like for his father to be poor, black, illegitimate, and homeless at age 13—in Athens, Georgia at the start of the Depression.
It's good to be reminded once again that I could put a little more effort into the struggles I dare to call "work."
I've transcribed what that man had to say to his son:
I want you to follow the advice I've always given to you and your brothers. Hard work wins. You get out of life what you put into it. ... You cannot control the outcome, but you are 100% in control of the effort. And before you complain about what somebody did to you or said to you, go to the nearest mirror, look at it and say, "How could I have changed the outcome?" And finally, no matter how good you are, how moral you are, how ethical you are, bad things are going to happen. How you respond to those bad things will tell your mother and me whether or not we raised a man.
I can't believe it has been more than two months since my last COVIDtide status report. Porter, bearing in mind 1816—the Year Without a Summer—calls 2020 the "Year without a Year." Life goes on, but without the events that usually divide and mark our years.
Our planned family reunion in April screeched to a halt when our borders closed and the Swiss folks couldn't make it. Then no one else could make it either. Then most of what we were planning to do closed, anyway. Doctor's appointments were cancelled. Church choir, a big part of our lives, stopped. Church itself went online. Regular restaurant dates with friends were no more. In July we were to have celebrated our first nephew's wedding, in Connecticut. They still had the wedding, but with only a handful of people in attendance, and postponed the reception a full year. Our annual Independence Day band gig was cancelled. Our scheduled European cruise and our visit to Switzerland were cancelled. Plans to celebrate a granddaughter's birthday in person were scrubbed. Our Thanksgiving traditions that have been in place for decades now look very unlikely. So far the only annual event that has not been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic has been hurricane season.
Not that we're wasting away at home—there's always plenty to do here—but it IS hard to keep track of time when one day is so much like another.
Be that as it may, we are slowly emerging from hibernation. Doctors offices are open now, albeit with new restrictions and procedures, so that blessed time of not having to think of personal medical issues has passed. We've now had dental cleanings and annual physicals, and I restarted the process of getting cataract surgery, which I had not been sad to forget for a while.
Our music director, impatient with choir practice having been reduced to a weekly Zoom chat, dug out the children's hand chimes and started an adult "handbell" choir. They're not bells (our church doesn't have any), but they ring, and I'm thrilled to be making music again at last. Now once a week I get out to something besides the grocery store!
Porter, however, is the one who has become really adventurous. Long before the pandemic, he had signed up to be a census enumerator, but the process ground to a halt before it could properly begin. I'm not sure I see the logic of halting the census here in Florida when our case numbers were low and our hospitals empty, then restarting in in the middle of a much higher wave of COVID cases, but that's what they did. About three quarters of those who had initially signed on for the job quit, unwilling to take on the risk. Porter was not one of them, and has been working for three weeks now.
There's plenty I could say about the census process, but not in this post.
That's about it. Our big September adventure, instead of a Baltic cruise and visiting grandkids, will be the above-mentioned cataract surgery, which involves two surgery days and at least five other visits, not even counting the ones that I'd had pre-pandemic and needed to repeat. I'm not complaining—several positive changes have been implemented since my first try at this. It just puts me in mind of what my mother-in-law used to say:
I'd have taken better care of myself if I'd known that my social life would consist primarily of visits to the doctor.
I read and reviewed The Fall of Heaven in 2017, having no clue at the time how much closer America would come to this perilous situation in just three years. It's time to revisit that review.
Please read this book. It was recommended to me by two Iranian friends who suffered through, and escaped from, the Iranian Revolution. Thus I give it much higher credence than I would a random book off the library shelves. If they say the reporting accords with their own experiences, I believe them. They are highly intelligent and well-educated people.
I cannot overstate how important I think this book to be for here and now in America. Who our Ruhollah Khomeini might be I do not know, but I look at the news and am convinced that the stage set is a close copy of that in Iran 40 years ago, and the script is frighteningly similar.
Those who are fighting for change at any cost need to consider just how high that cost might be.
The Fall of Heaven: The Pahlavis and the Final Days of Imperial Iran by Andrew Scott Cooper (Henry Holt, 2016)
People were excited at the prospect of "change."
That was the cry, "We want change."
You are living in a country that is one of the wealthiest and most powerful in the world. You enjoy freedom, education, and health care that was beyond the imagination of the generation before you, and the envy of most of the world. But all is not well. There is a large gap between the rich and the poor, and a widening psychological gulf between rural workers and urban elites. A growing number of people begin to look past the glitter and glitz of the cities and see the strip clubs, the indecent, avant-garde theatrical performances, offensive behavior in the streets, and the disintegration of family and tradition. Stories of greed and corruption at the highest corporate and governmental levels have shaken faith in the country's bedrock institutions. Rumors—with some truth—of police brutality stoke the fears of the population, and merciless criminals freely exploit attempts to restrain police action. The country is awash in information that is outdated, inaccurate, and being manipulated for wrongful ends; the misinformation is nowhere so egregious as at the upper levels of government, where leaders believe what they want to hear, and dismiss the few voices of truth as too negative. Random violence and senseless destruction are on the rise, along with incivility and intolerance. Extremists from both the Left and the Right profit from, and provoke, this disorder, knowing that a frightened and angry populace is easily manipulated. Foreign governments and terrorist organizations publish inflammatory information, fund angry demonstrations, foment riots, and train and arm revolutionaries. The general population hurtles to the point of believing the situation so bad that the country must change—without much consideration for what that change may turn out to bring.
It's 1978. You are in Iran.
I haven't felt so strongly about a book since Hold On to Your Kids. Read. This. Book. Not because it is a page-turning account of the Iranian Revolution of 1978/79, which it is, but because there is so much there that reminds me of America, today. Not that I can draw any neat conclusions about how to apply this information: the complexities of what happened to turn our second-best friend in the Middle East into one of our worst enemies have no easy unravelling. But time has a way of at least making the events clearer, and for that alone The Fall of Heaven is worth reading.
On the other hand, most people don't have the time and the energy to read a densely-packed, 500-page history book. If you're a parent, or a grandparent, or work with children, I say your time would be better spent reading Hold On to Your Kids. But if you can get your hands on a copy of this book, I strongly recommend reading the first few pages: the People, the Events, and the Introduction. That's only 25 pages. By then, you may be hooked, as I was; if not you will at least have been given a good overview of what is fleshed out in the remainder of the book.
A few brief take-aways:
- The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Jimmy Carter is undoubtedly an amazing, wonderful person; as my husband is fond of saying, the best ex-president we've ever had. But in the very moments he was winning his Nobel Peace Prize by brokering the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty at Camp David, he—or his administration—was consigning Iran to the hell that endures today. Thanks to a complete failure of American (and British) Intelligence and a massive disinformation campaign with just enough truth to keep it from being dismissed out of hand, President Carter was led to believe that the Shah of Iran was a monster; America's ambassador to the United Nations, Andrew Young, likened the Shah to Adolf Eichmann, and called Ruhollah Khomeini a saint. Perhaps the Iranian Revolution and its concomitant bloodbath would have happened without American incompetence, disingenuousness, and backstabbing, but that there is much innocent blood on the hands of our kindly, Peace Prize-winning President, I have no doubt.
- There's a reason spycraft is called intelligence. Lack of good information leads to stupid decisions.
- Bad advisers will bring down a good leader, be he President or Shah, and good advisers can't save him if he won't listen.
- The Bible is 100% correct when it likens people to sheep. Whether by politicians, agitators, con men, charismatic religious leaders (note: small "c"), pop stars, advertisers, or our own peers, we are pathetically easy to manipulate.
- When the Shah imposed Western Culture on his people, it came with Western decadence and Hollywood immorality thrown in. Even salt-of-the-earth, ordinary people can only take so much of having their lives, their values, and their family integrity threatened. "It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations."
- The Shah's education programs sent students by droves to Europe and the United States for university educations. This was an unprecedented opportunity, but the timing could have been better. The 1960's and 70's were not sane years on college campuses, as I can personally testify. Instead of being grateful for their educations, the students came home radicalized against their government. In this case, "the Man," the enemy, was the Shah and all that he stood for. Anxious to identify with the masses and their deprivations, these sons and daughters of privilege exchanged one set of drag for another, donning austere Muslim garb as a way of distancing themselves from everything their parents held dear. Few had ever opened a Quran, and fewer still had an in-depth knowledge of Shia theology, but in their rebellious naïveté they rushed to embrace the latest opiate.
- "Suicide bomber" was not a household word 40 years ago, but the concept was there. "If you give the order we are prepared to attach bombs to ourselves and throw ourselves at the Shah's car to blow him up," one local merchant told the Ayatollah.
- People with greatly differing viewpoints can find much in The Fall of Heaven to support their own ideas and fears. Those who see sinister influences behind the senseless, deliberate destruction during natural disasters and protest demonstrations will find justification for their suspicions in the brutal, calculated provocations perpetrated by Iran's revolutionaries. Others will find striking parallels between the rise of Radical Islam in Iran and the rise of Donald Trump in the United States. Those who have no use for deeply-held religious beliefs will find confirmation of their own belief that the only acceptable religions are those that their followers don't take too seriously. Some will look at the Iranian Revolution and see a prime example of how conciliation and compromise with evil will only end in disaster.
- I've read the Qur'an and know more about Islam than many Americans (credit not my knowledge but general American ignorance), but in this book I discovered something that surprised me. Two practices that I assumed marked every serious Muslim are five-times-a-day prayer, and fasting during Ramadan. Yet the Shah, an obviously devout man who "ruled in the fear of God" and always carried a Qur'an with him, did neither. Is this a legitimate and common variation, or the Muslim equivalent of the Christian who displays a Bible prominently on his coffee table but rarely cracks it open and prefers to sleep in on Sundays? Clearly, I have more to learn.
- Many of Iran's problems in the years before the Revolution seem remarkably similar to those of someone who wins a million dollar lottery. Government largess fueled by massive oil revenues thrust people suddenly into a new and unfamiliar world of wealth, in the end leaving them, not grateful, but resentful when falling oil prices dried up the flow of money.
- I totally understand why one country would want to influence another country that it views as strategically important; that may even be considered its duty to its own citizens. But for goodness' sake, if you're going to interfere, wait until you have a good knowledge of the country, its history, its customs, and its people. Our ignorance of Iran in general and the political and social situation in particular was appalling. We bought the carefully-orchestrated public façade of Khomeini hook, line, and sinker; an English translation of his inflammatory writings and blueprint for the establishment of an Islamic republic in Iran came nine years too late, after it was all over. In our ignorance we conferred political legitimacy on the radical Khomeini while ignoring the true leaders of the majority of Iran's Shiite Muslims. The American ambassador and his counterpart from the United Kingdom, on whom the Shah relied heavily in the last days, confidently gave him ignorant and disastrous advice. Not to mention that it was our manipulation of the oil market (with the aid of Saudi Arabia) that brought on the fall in oil prices that precipitated Iran's economic crisis.
- The bumbling actions of the United States, however, look positively beatific compared with the works of men like Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, and Yasser Arafat and his Palestine Liberation Organization, who funded, trained, and armed the revolutionaries.
I threw out the multitude of sticky notes with which I marked up the book in favor of one long quotation from the introduction. It matters to me because I heard and absorbed the accusations against the Shah, and even thought Khomeini was acting out of a legitimate complaint with regard to the immorality of some aspects of American culture. Not that I paid much attention to world events at the time of the Revolution, being more concerned with my job, our first house, a visit to my in-laws in Brazil, and the birth of our first child. But I was deceived by the fake news, and I'm glad to have a clearer picture at last.
The controversy and confusion that surrounded the Shah's human rights record overshadowed his many real accomplishments in the fields of women's rights, literacy, health care, education, and modernization. Help in sifting through the accusations and allegations came from a most unexpected quarter, however, when the Islamic Republic announced plans to identify and memorialize each victim of Pahlavi "oppression." But lead researcher Emad al-Din Baghi, a former seminary student, was shocked to discover that the could not match the victims' names to the official numbers: instead of 100,000 deaths Baghi could confirm only 3,164. Even that number was inflated because it included all 2,781 fatalities from the 1978-1979 revolution. The actual death toll was lowered to 383, of whom 197 were guerrilla fighters and terrorists killed in skirmishes with the security forces. that meant 183 political prisoners and dissidents were executed, committed suicide in detention, or died under torture. [No, I can't make those numbers add up right either, but it's close enough.] The number of political prisoners was also sharply reduced, from 100,000 to about 3,200. Baghi's revised numbers were troublesome for another reason: they matched the estimates already provided by the Shah to the International Committee of the Red Cross before the revolution. "The problem here was not only the realization that the Pahlavi state might have been telling the truth but the fact that the Islamic Republic had justified many of its excesses on the popular sacrifices already made," observed historian Ali Ansari. ... Baghi's report exposed Khomeini's hypocrisy and threatened to undermine the vey moral basis of the revolution. Similarly, the corruption charges against the Pahlavis collapsed when the Shah's fortune was revealed to be well under $100 million at the time of his departure [instead of the rumored $25-$50 billion], hardly insignificant but modest by the standards of other royal families and remarkably low by the estimates that appeared in the Western press.
Baghi's research was suppressed inside Iran but opened up new vistas of study for scholars elsewhere. As a former researcher at Human Rights Watch, the U.S. organization that monitors human rights around the world, I was curious to learn how the higher numbers became common currency in the first place. I interviewed Iranian revolutionaries and foreign correspondents whose reporting had helped cement the popular image of the Shah as a blood-soaked tyrant. I visited the Center for Documentation on the Revolution in Tehran, the state organization that compiles information on human rights during the Pahlavi era, and was assured by current and former staff that Baghi's reduced numbers were indeed credible. If anything, my own research suggested that Baghi's estimates might still be too high. For example, during the revolution the Shah was blamed for a cinema fire that killed 430 people in the southern city of Abadan; we now know that this heinous crime was carried out by a pro-Khomeini terror cell. Dozens of government officials and soldiers had been killed during the revolution, but their deaths were also attributed to the Shah and not to Khomeini. The lower numbers do not excuse or diminish the suffering of political prisoners jailed or tortured in Iran in the 1970s. They do, however, show the extent to which the historical record was manipulated by Khomeini and his partisans to criminalize the Shah and justify their own excesses and abuses.
This more recent (primary) election left me seriously wondering, for the first time in years, if I need to switch parties.
I picked up one candidate's material, which said (roughly) "My opponent is a totally despicable jerk, who if elected will do terrible things." So I picked up the opponent's material, and saw "My opponent is a totally despicable jerk, who if elected will do terrible things."
Hmm. So I dug deeper and looked at the positive side, what they had to say about themselves, what they were bragging about.
And concluded that each was correct in his assessment of the other.
For tomorrow's primary election, I voted by mail.
Rather against my better judgement, I admit, as I far prefer in-person voting and that only on the "real" election day. I did "early voting" once and it felt so false I never did it again.
I have voted absentee before, and felt okay with that. In fact, that's why I had a mail-in ballot for this election: given our schedule—or what used to be our schedule, pre-pandemic—I didn't want to find myself disenfranchised by being out of town. What I've done before when I have been at home on Election Day is to vote at my local polling place and have them nullify my mail-in ballot there.
I've voted in person once already during this COVIDtide, and felt at least as safe as I do grocery shopping. But this time, I figured it would be good to practice the new system when it barely mattered—the Democratic primary for a few local seats. I have to say it's more complicated and a whole lot less fun than going in person and chatting with the precinct workers, but it seems okay.
If people are honest.
I know mail-in voting somehow works well in Switzerland, but it still makes me nervous to rely on it here on a large scale. Election fraud is nothing new, and is possible no matter what system you use. My father used to tell stories of the days when votes were openly bought. But mail balloting does seem to me to be more open to fraud—particularly to coercion—than in-person voting. You can force or trick someone into voting a certain way a lot more easily when you can see what they're marking—or even mark it for them and force them to sign—and mail the ballot yourself, than in the privacy of a voting booth. How do we prevent that? Don't tell me there aren't plenty of unscrupulous people with that kind of power over others.
Our registration procedures have become very lax in recent years. According to a poll worker I know and trust, one person in his experience was mailed a ballot to vote in Florida, and was at the same time registered (and planning) to vote in New Hampshire. She had no idea she was even registered to vote in Florida; the best guess is that it happened automatically when she applied for a Florida driver's license. I see nothing in the process that would prevent her from voting twice, except her own honesty. I also don't see how it happened, since Daniel Webster (who is my favorite congressman because he was instrumental in making home education legal in Florida decades ago) assures us in this op-ed article that, unlike some states, Florida only sends mail-in ballots to those who request them. But something went wrong for this woman, and I foresee a lot going wrong all over the country, both by accident and by malicious intent.
Why, in some states, are people being mailed ballots who did not request them? All those extra ballots floating around is just asking for trouble. Really, if people are willing to go to work, and the grocery store, and doctor's offices, and restaurants, and bars, and parties—why are we pushing vote-by-mail instead of in-person?
In Florida, anyone who wants a mail ballot can request one, and I appreciate that service, but I am strongly convinced that the normal path for voting, the one that should be encouraged above all others, is in-person, on Election Day, where photo-identification and private booths do their best to ensure that a legitimate voter is casting a secret ballot.
I think America owes ISIS an apology. We were so self-righteous over their destruction of ancient monuments—sometimes more upset by that than by their destruction of people. Now we are doing it ourselves. If the history isn't as old as in the Middle East, it's the same abominable impulse.
That's as heavy as this post is going to get. On the lighter side, here is a word for our modern iconoclasts from Psalm 105, at least as interpreted by Sunday's church bulletin.