Saturday, December 21, 2019

Frederick Douglass: Self-made Man, by Tim Sandefur

Timothy Sandefur's Frederick Douglass: Self-Made Man is an inspirational read. Sandefur does a masterful job of putting the story of Douglass' life and accomplishments into context. Douglass was born a slave, and became one of the most prominent abolitionist leaders. He insisted on telling his own story, and led the faction that was most interested in integration. While the leading faction when he started advocating freedom was arguing that the constitution was an impediment to freedom for blacks, he argued that it would be better to take the constitution literally, and use it as the basis for a moral case for equality.

I heard Sandefur give a wonderful talk about Douglass' life at Reason Weekend. (There's an earlier version of the talk on YouTube.) Both the talk and the book deliver a powerful pro-liberty statement and show how Douglass lived as a model of what he advocated, and convinced many other people that playing on the positive vision of the founders would be a more productive way to engage on the issue of emancipation. Douglass trumpeted that "the Consitution is a GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT". Douglass argued that the Supreme Court is bound to follow the words of the Consitution rather than historical precedent, and there's nothing in the words that allows or supports treating some citizens as second class. It took a long time before the Supreme Court agreed, but eventually, the aspirational message of the constitution's meaning prevailed.

While I was in the DC area for Thanksgiving, we visited the Smithsonian's African American Museum, since the lines were finally short enough (during the week) that we could get in without reservations. While the historical section of the museum is arranged chronologically, it didn't feel like the museum did a good job of connecting the exhibits to give a feeling of how different incidents connected together. I was glad I was reading a history of the period for context. The museum's exhibits confirmed that Douglass was a prominent leader, though (not surprisingly) they didn't say much about the content of his views, or how much contention there was among different factions of the movement.

I enjoyed the book and recommend it.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Two by C. J. Cherryh

I was recently reading Alliance Rising by C. J. Cherryh and Jane S. Fancher and Defender by C. J. Cherryh at the same time. (It's not unusual for me to be reading 4 or 5 books at the same time. Some I have as hard copies by the bed, some on my tablet, and others on my phone.) I've liked most of the Cherryh that I've read, so I was a little surprised at my reaction to these two.

Defender is book 5 in a 20 book series, and I enjoyed it a lot. I'm familiar with the characters, and there's a lot of action, and many factions jockeying for control. It doesn't have much of a pro-liberty message -- I don't insist on that in everything I read.

Defender focuses more on a struggle to keep the peace, and a society where some of the characters have very alien motivations. This is one of the things that I like about this series--Cherryh has a really great ability to depict people who don't think as we do.

My response to Alliance Rising, was quite different. If it hadn't been nominated for this year's Prometheus award (I'm on the review committee) I might even have set it aside. After getting through about a third of the book, I felt like the only actual action that had taken place was that an unexpected ship had arrived at the space station where the story takes place. The rest was all talk. There had been meetings and trysts and discussions and a lot of description of historical and political background by the authors. By the end there was a little more action, but the focus was really on politics and lobbying.

But I have to admit that Alliance Rising is a plausible candidate for the award. The politics and hobnobbing are all in service of the independent trading ships banding together in the face of Earth's apparent intent to take over the interstellar shipping business. There are safety concerns because the people acting for Earth's government are more concerned with controlling commerce than operating a business, while the traders have family ties with the stations, and have an interest in making sure that trade continues even where it's uneconomical at times. I'm not sure that it's a principaled pro-freedom message, but it's at least plausible. I still prefer to read SF stories where the plot is advanced by stuff happening, rather than by people talking. I'll have to wait to see how this book stacks up against the other contenders for this year's Prometheus.