Just came back from spending a week away, with little to do but splash in water, dig in the sand, and read – all things I was eager to do. So with no issues or distractions, other than the question of how many towers a sandcastle should have, I was able to finish two books.
One, Ian Kershaw's The End, a look at the final year of the Nazi regime and how it was able to hold out for so long against such overwhelming external forces, is typically fascinating and detailed, with a clear argument. My only problem with it is that it clearly needed another round of copy editing; within the first three pages I found several errors or confusing usages that seemed obtuse, and there are oddities throughout. (For instance, it would never occur to me to say that a Nazi leader had "skedaddled" unless I were, say, writing an episode of Hogan's Heroes.)
The other book I was able to finish was Charles Mann's 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. It offers repeated lessons on the reality that what we see is in large part determined by what we choose to see.
Mann's goal is to cut through all the "noble savage" crap our society is so eager to believe and perpetrate, and actually try to see how natives of the Americas (or, as he calls them, "Indians," based on the persuasive argument that virtually all North American native groups call themselves that) interacted with their environments and each other. The answers are unexpected – from the Great Lakes to the Andes, he demonstrates that Indians had an enormous impact on their physical surroundings, harnessing their landscapes for sustainable food production. Even a sizeable chunk of the Amazon rain forests, full of fruit trees that were bred for production, is likely the result of human efforts from before Columbus. Far from being "hands off" people living at the mercy of nature, they literally created the vast landscapes that the Europeans found at the beginning of the sixteenth century – landscapes that, thanks to diseases like smallpox, were in the years following 1492 quickly emptied of the people who had created them.
The book makes a strong case, and at the same time, it's a powerful indictment of centuries of white blindness to Indian realities. He shows how biological and geographic features are explained away through increasingly bizarre excuses, and archeological finds go unexamined or only half explained for decades; resistance to accepting Indians as being fully human, with the same kinds of motivations and aspirations as Europeans, is systemic and yet deeply inculcated, even when unintentional on an individual level.
Oddly enough, Errol Morris has just come out with a book about photography that shares the title of this post, and has a lot to do with this very topic.
With the Occupy movement seemingly winding down, and political goofiness of all sorts continuing its upswing, it seems an apt time to think about preconceptions, how we see only what we want to see, and how we choose symbols to talk and fight about those things we think everybody sees.