A humble little blog about books, information, and other things that are good to know.

Posts tagged ‘history’

Why Pride?

in honour of Toronto Pride Week 2012

Sticker: "It's okay to be gay."

Image via Yujean Stickers.

I’ve had people ask me before, “Why do gay people get their own parade? Straight people don’t. Why do they have to make such a big thing of it?”

The answer is twofold: because it’s harder to discriminate against somebody you know, and because spirit in the face of oppression needs to be celebrated.

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Denying History

“Where everyone’s opinion is equal to everyone else’s opinion, no one’s opinion matters.”

Denying History by Michael Shermer & Alex Grobman

Image via Skeptic Magazine.

Title: Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened and Why Do They Say It?

Author: Michael Shermer & Alex Grobman

Year of Publication: 2000

Genre Keywords: censorship, evidence, free speech, history, Holocaust, Holocaust denial, ideology, logic, Nazism, neo-Nazism, scholarship, skepticism.

Summary: A smart and readable book about the phenomenon of modern Holocaust denial, written by two authors committed to the accurate understanding and portrayal of history. They begin by warning against silencing the people who deny that the Holocaust took place – instead, they argue persuasively, it’s best to place the beliefs of Holocaust deniers under a microscope, to seek flaws in logic and ideological motivations. There is a factual truth in history, and only by exposing the truth can we defeat the lies and misrepresentations of deniers.

Shermer and Grobman then go on to discuss the Holocaust denial movement’s ideological underpinnings – who says the Holocaust never happened and why they say it. (They also go into how Holocaust deniers use logical fallacies and twist the evidence to suit their purposes by outlining the deniers’ main arguments.) Then they go into the historical evidence to examine the major tenets of Holocaust denial: the ideas that concentration camps were not used for extermination, that the extermination of Jews was not a part of Hitler’s plan, and that the number exterminated was less than six million or even one million. As most of us would probably expect, they find that the majority of evidence disproves the deniers’ claims.

Who’ll Love It: Any readers concerned with the Holocaust have probably already decided they want to read this book. But more broadly, those interested in truth and misinformation – and how people with an agenda can manipulate the truth to spread bad information – should definitely look at this.

A Question for Librarians: The issue of free speech in this case is complicated enough that Shermer & Grobman could have written the entire book on just that question alone. It’s an issue that arises in library studies as well. Most of us agree with the authors’ persuasive point that misinformation is best defeated by an honest, careful study of the evidence, not by censoring deniers’ views. After all, censorship gives their ideas a power they don’t deserve. But on the other hand, would you put Holocaust deniers’ books on the shelves of your library? Would you give them a platform? And if they argued that your refusal to make their ideas accessible amounted to a form of passive censorship, what would you say?

The Demon-Haunted World

"The Demon-Haunted World" by Carl Sagan

Image via Nullius in Verba.

Title: The Demon-Haunted World: Science As A Candle in the Dark

Author: Carl Sagan (my hero!)

Year of Publication: 1996

Genre Keywords: alien abduction, aliens, astrology, belief, credulity, critical thinking, culture, debunking, false memory, ghosts, hallucinations, history, human error, logic, reason, religion, science, skepticism, thought.

Summary: Brilliant popular scientist Carl Sagan takes on a culture of logical laziness in this readable and eloquent volume all about the errors we as human beings make in knowing and interpreting the world around us. He describes typical thinking errors like confirmation bias (our tendency to give more weight to information that supports what we want to believe), inconsistent logic, or confusion between correlation and causation. Along the way, he takes the American government and educational system to task for failing to create a citizen base with the knowledge required to think critically about information presented to them. He acknowledges, though, that it’s hard for governments to promote critical thought, lest they find themselves held accountable by a tough-to-manipulate electorate. For this reason and many others, Sagan argues convincingly, the world needs more skeptics, ready and willing to ask questions and ruthlessly demand the facts.

Who’ll Love It: If you’ve ever made the decision to doubt the received wisdom of any of the authorities in your world, at least some of Sagan’s words will resonate with you. Certainly he’s got a way with words and some highly amusing anecdotes. And fans of the Cosmos television series will practically hear his voice coming through the pages! But be warned – Sagan, like a proper skeptic, holds nothing sacred, and he does discuss ideas that will challenge any reader who takes anything on faith.

Carl Sagan is the reason Richard Dawkins and I agree on anything. Dawkins said in his review of the book, “My candidate for planetary ambassador can be none other than Carl Sagan himself”. Amen! (Can you say ‘amen’ to Richard Dawkins?)

Want More? If Sagan’s words resonate deeply with you, or if they whet your curiosity and you’d like to learn more, I recommend the Center for Inquiry as a great resource. I’ve been following their “Point of Inquiry” podcast, and I find it fascinating, intelligent, and appealing. And I’ve just learned they have another pocast, “Center Stage” – I’m headed straight to iTunes to sign on. Check out their website for more on the very ideas Carl Sagan talks about in this book.

Anne Frank and Me

Anne Frank and Me

Image via Fantastic Fiction.

Title: Anne Frank and Me

Author: Cherie Bennett and Jeff Gottesfeld

Year of Publication: 1997

Genre Keywords: coming of age, culture, family, friendship, high school, history, Holocaust, Judaism, religion, self-expression, teen, time travel, war, World War Two, young adult.

Summary: Teen blogger Nicole Burns is far too busy avoiding her homework, adoring the class hottie, and wishing she could get her kid sister out of her hair; she doesn’t have time to think about things that happened in generations-ago Europe. So she’s not particularly invested in her teacher’s guest speaker, a Holocaust survivor, or their trip to a nearby museum’s Holocaust exhibit. But then the sound of gunfire erupts in the museum, panic ensues, and Nicole awakens to find herself living the life of a Jewish girl in Nazi-occupied Paris. Her new life isn’t so very different from her old one – a gorgeous classmate she adores, an annoying little sister called Liz-Bette, friends and family and all the rest. But she’s also got a yellow star sewn to the front of her coat, and as she watches her freedoms dwindle as the war progresses, Nicole starts searching for a way to make her voice matter.

Who’ll Love It: Who wouldn’t? I recommend it to any reader. If you didn’t find Anne Frank particularly moving or wondered why all those musty old historical stories mattered, this book has the answer: because people who lived those historical experiences are not so different from us.  Conversely, if you’re acutely aware of the lingering evil effects of the Holocaust and the suffering it caused, you’ll find this book deeply moving and hard to put down.

Beyond Books: The novel Anne Frank and Me is based on a play with the same title. Look out for it! Even if there’s no local theatre company bringing this story to life on stage, it would definitely be interesting to consider your own life in light of Nicole’s story. If you traveled back in time to Holocaust-era Europe, what would your life look like? Who would be your parents, teachers, friends, and neighbours? How would you survive? Or would you survive at all?

A community theatre performance of Anne Frank and Me.

Image via Zona Gale Young People's Theatre (ZGYPT) at the Portage Center for the Arts.

The Literacy Link: How Books Make Your World Safer

I’ve been reading through Born For Love by Bruce D. Perry and Maia Szalavitz, a book about how human development creates empathy and what increases or decreases it in human beings. They have a lot of fascinating, surprising things to say, but here’s something I bet you didn’t know: some historians have observed that, as literacy spreads in a given society, murder, torture, and violence become more rare. Reading makes people less violent!

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The Story of Tibet

Cover image of 'The Story of Tibet' by Thomas Laird

Image courtesy of The Tibet Connection.

Title: The Story of Tibet: Conversations with the Dalai Lama

Author: Thomas Laird

Year of Publication: 2006

Genre Keywords: Asian history, Buddhism, cultural studies, Dalai Lama, history, politics,  religion.

Summary: Throughout a series of interviews, Thomas Laird came to understand the history of Tibet from the perspective of the Dalai Lama, starting with the country’s myths of origin and moving all the way into the twentieth-century controversies over Chinese occupation. Laird interweaves historical and political source material with the Dalai Lama’s own words and ideas, which often combine the spiritual and the political for a unique perspective on Tibet’s place in the world and his own role in moving his nation forward.

Who’ll Love It: A thoughtful reader with an interest in Asian or Buddhist thought, history, and culture. The Story of Tibet is hardly a quick read – actually it took me an unusually long time to finish – but it was well worth the effort for somebody fascinated by the Dalai Lama and his Buddhist outlook on life. Throughout the story, he supplies an unusual take on history that really spoke to me. I’m moved by the challenge of eliciting change without resorting to violence, and the ways our own media and social system makes that difficult.

The Quotable Lama: “I believe truth has its own strength and we must retain our faith in truth. Of course guns have their own unique strength. But the strength or force of a gun is short or temporary. Temporarily it is decisive, but in the long run it is weak. The power of truth stands up. Truth always remains unchangeable.” (The Story of Tibet contains lots of little gems like this one.)

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