Review: The Confessions of Nat Turner

In the process of doing research for an essay touching on racism and Confederate memorials, I was reminded of the novel, The Confessions of Nat Turner, by William Styron. I had heard of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel but had never read it. I knew it was a fictional tale based on the life and death of a slave who had led a bloody revolt in 1830s Virginia.

Nat Turner was a religious fanatic whose faith led him to commit or facilitate many grisly murders in the name of freedom for the slaves. Styron's book makes clear the indignities and abuse suffered by slaves. The reader is led to believe some kind of action against the white populace is justified, but clearly not the rampage that Turner led. Turner gradually comes to see that a revolt is necessary, and that it is God's will that Turner lead it. I was reminded of how the religious fanaticism of John Brown led him to execute proponents of slavery, believing God was on his side, as well as how both the people of the Union and the Confederacy believing God was on their side in the Civil War.

Turner learned to read and write at an early age, but it is unlikely he was as eloquent as the first-person "confessions" in Styron's novel would suggest (and for which Styron has been criticized). Nevertheless, Styron tells a good story. While the narrative moved back and forth between the events leading up to the revolt and Turner's incarceration, I didn't get confused or lost. I don't always read a famous work and come away with a realization of why that work deserved the praise it received, but I did this book.

On Tyranny

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth CenturyOn Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It has become a cliché to quote George Santayana's dictum that "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." It is unfortunate - if not tragic - to hear history as an important part of school curricula spurned. Worse yet, as author and Yale historian Timothy Snyder tells us in his new book, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (Tim Duggan Books, 2017), democracy is in danger if we do not take historical lessons to heart.

"The Founding Fathers," writes Snyder, "tried to protect us from the threat they knew, the tyranny that overcame ancient democracy. Today, our political order faces new threats, not unlike the totalitarianism of the twentieth century. We are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from the experience."

On Tyranny is a short book but is one which the reader should reread again and again. Snyder packs a lot of warning into his words, words that need to seep in for us to become fully awake to our clear and present danger. There are twenty chapters, or "lessons," each of which is titled with a maxim: "Do not obey in advance." "Take responsibility for the face of the world." "Believe in truth." "Listen for dangerous words." And, perhaps the most chilling, "Be calm when the unthinkable arrives." Each chapter is introduced with a few remarks about how to put that chapter's maxim into action.

We must learn from the mistakes of the twentieth century, Snyder admonishes us. We must not take democracy for granted, or fall victim to naïve optimism that because democracy is so important, it is not vulnerable. Wake up, says Snyder. The wolves are at the door.

It would be impractical to comment on every one of Snyder's lessons, so allow me to select one as an illustration: "Investigate." Snyder encourages us all to investigate. "The individual who investigates is also the citizen who builds. The leader who dislikes the investigators is a potential tyrant." And truth? Snyder does not mince words: "Like Hitler, the president used the word lies to mean statements of fact not to his liking, and presented journalism as a campaign against himself." What is our responsibility as citizens? "Since in the age of the internet we are all publishers, each of us bears some private responsibility for the public's sense of truth." Snyder says to verify information ourselves, and carefully choose trustworthy journalists.

Snyder's message is loud and clear: we must defend democracy, we must do it now, and there are ways to accomplish that. I can't imagine how anyone could not take this to heart.

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The Slippery Slope to a Totalitarian Singularity: A Review of Dave Eggers' "The Circle"

The CircleThe Circle by Dave Eggers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The notion of a singularity, as popularized by Ray Kurzweil, refers to an accelerating process of technologies building upon one another until we reach a point where we cannot humanly understand or control the outcome. This usually refers to an "explosion" of intelligence, facilitated by computers, that greatly surpasses what humans possess.

Dave Eggers' novel The Circle depicts a world, uncomfortably similar to our own, which rapidly, and with good intentions, is headed toward a singularity of knowledge that precludes, and even outlaws, privacy. This is a world where the tools for gathering and manipulating information become increasingly powerful, causing an "explosion" of control that threatens to eradicate the concept of the "individual."

The main character in this story, a young woman named Mae, is a new employee of a Silicon Valley company known as the Circle. The Circle is a company with a global reach whose pioneering vision is to improve society through the gleaning and analysis of information so everyone can make better decisions on anything from a personal level to an international level. Anyone who has visited some of the large companies in Silicon Valley will easily recognize in the Circle the excitement and energy that flows through a campus of idealistic young people working on the edge of technology in a lucrative industry, where the barriers between personal and professional life blur and disappear as all sorts of perks help feed the employees the emotional energy they need to pour into their work.

Mae had hardly begun her first day at work in the Circle when I realized where her future was headed. Employee indoctrination in the Circle mirrors that of a cult. Like any cult, you enter the cult by being sponsored. You are presented with grand visions of the future, rewarded for working to bring about that future, and threatened with ostracism or excommunication for failing to adhere to and promote the purpose of the cult. You are shepherded into the cult, gain recognition within the cult, and come to adopt the cult's values as your own. In the Circle, the personal need for privacy becomes subsumed by the greater good of sharing. "Sharing is Caring" and "Privacy is Theft" are recurring mantras.

Mae's weakness -- the tragic flaw of many who wind up in cults -- is a need for validation. Eggers suggests that the need for validation is the weakness of many who worship the consumption of information and social media. In the end we face the danger -- symbolized in The Circle by a shark -- of being consumed by both the information and social media we thought to consume. The Circle comes as a fable, a warning that the power that comes with tools for gleaning and analyzing information on a massive scale puts us on a slippery slope which -- if we're not careful -- could carry us, even with all the right motives, into a totalitarian future where an individual's needs are deemed insignificant compared to the needs of society.

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