Thursday, October 28, 2010

I'm Baaaaack!

Time to jump-start this blog, I think. My goal will be to put something out here every week. Often it may just be the standard W3dnesday or 3fer-Thursday book reviews, but they count, after all, and I can almost guarantee an occasional bit o’ different every now and again.

Sorry to have been gone so long, Readers Mine, but I’m back now.

Violence: My reading has taken be down some darkly fascinating roads lately. Most recently, with Warren Hammond’s novels KOP and Ex-KOP. Reviews on Amazon tend to refer to them as “SF-noir,” but I think I’d class them more as “Mike Hammer on a Crappy Planet.” The main character, Juno Mozambe, is an aging, alcoholic enforcer for a corrupt police organization on a planet several light-years from Earth. Definitely some Hammer meets the Continental Op, with plenty of sultry brunettes, staggeringly brutal character backgrounds, and a city that seems to be the bastard child of Calcutta, Singapore, Bangkok, and Mexico City. Crime, violence, and murder ensue, with Juno’s anti-heroic moral code determining what gets investigated. Over all, it's not a bad series so far, but nothing really jumps out, either. Hammond does a remarkable job of portraying active alcoholism, but I began to wonder more than once how in the Nine Hells Juno remained standing. These novels go on the hard-boiled brain candy shelf. Interesting and entertaining, but not a series I need to follow devoutly.

In the world of non-fiction, however, I picked up something special. Richard Rhodes has written several books, using his skills as an investigative journalist to provide detailed and compelling works on a variety of subjects. Not too long ago I wrote here about Masters of Death, Rhode’s unflinching look at the operations of the Nazi SS Einsatzgruppen in Eastern Europe during the early years of World War Two. An excellent treatment of a horrific subject, the book also brought to my attention the work of sociologist Lonnie Athens, who has used case-study methodology to investigate just what, exactly, makes violent people violent. Athens’ subsequent theory of violentization as a process of socialization was applied by Rhodes to try and reveal how the members of the Einsatzgruppen could perpetrate such brutal, malefic violence so callously, carelessly, and regularly. I’ve read more than a few books on the Holocaust, not to mention the other attempted genocides, mass murders, pogroms, ethnic-cleansings, etc that stain human history like rotting blood, and I have never run across any explanation for the behavior of the perpetrators that rings so true, or that is applicable in every case throughout history, as Lonnie Athens’.

So I picked up Rhodes’ Why They Kill: the Discoveries of a Maverick Criminologist which details the life and work of Lonnie Athens, and applies his theories to a number of high-profile violent criminals, historical periods, and even shows it at work in the training of military and police forces. In brief, Athens proposes that individuals are socialized to violence, just as we are to any other behavior, that this violent socialization, or violentization, occurs in identifiable stages in specific sequence, and that the process is observable in every violent person. Athens’ work focused on scores of case studies of violent criminals through hours of personal interviews which Athens collected and analyzed over a period of years. The interviewees were convicted criminals serving time, and Athens’ was able to use careful study of their criminal records to cross-check their stories for accuracy. His discoveries included that violence was not a product of “passion” or temporary lapses of reason brought on by great stress, but a definite, conscious choice on the part of the actor. An individual’s readiness and willingness to use violence depended upon the level of violentization experienced, which process served to alter the way in which a person interprets a situation. In other words, a non-violent person might interpret a friend’s joke about his developing gut as good-natured ribbing that perhaps arose out of a genuine concern for him. A fully violentized person might interpret the same comment as a suggestion of weakness, softness, and conclude that the person making the comment was considering attacking him, or was disrespecting him, interpretations that would lead to violence in order to demonstrate the actors continued strength and to keep the speaker in his place.

The above is just a brief taste of Athens’ work, and some of his most significant work transcends criminology, to provide truly great insight into the psychological sociology of human beings. Athens clarifies Mead’s tentative idea of a “generalized other” into a far more concrete concept of “phantom communities,” the people in our lives who’s voices, outlook, and attitudes we internalize into our own decision making process. Ever seem to clearly hear your mom’s voice in your head when you’re thinking about doing something she’d disapprove of, even though she’s nowhere around? That’s a part of your phantom community talking to you. In later work, Athens examines dramatic self-change, and the presents the idea of the self as soliloquy, affirming that we are indeed, in large part, the stories we tell ourselves. Rhodes provides a truly fascinating, readable account of Athens’ development of these ideas, as well as the struggle he has faces professionally to have his work taken seriously, an area in which he has had far more success with professionals in law enforcement than with academics. Rhode’s applications of Athens’ theories to criminals and history are enlightening and bear out his work. Emotionally, it’s not an easy read, and I found myself reaching for some brain-candy about ¾ of the way through, just to take a break from the darker side of good ol’ homo sap’, but I honestly think it’s an important read. In fact, Athens’ The Creation of Dangerous Violent Criminals, the scholarly work where he presents his theory of violentization, is now on my to-be-read-pile. Lonnie Athens opened a new window on human behavior for me. How often does that happen?

What’s next? Well, with several exams looming next week, I’ve returned to H. Rider Haggard and The Treasure of the Lake to follow Allan Quatermain and his wise-cracking Hottentot servant Hans on another adventure into lost African worlds. Brain candy, to be sure, but really, really rich and yummy brain candy. The same way Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories are brain candy. I am constantly amazed at how much more intelligent late 19th/early 20th century adventure/young adult literature is compared to its modern descendants. After that, I may delve back into Athens with The Creation of Dangerous Violent Criminals, or go in an entirely different direction with Jeanine Basinger’s The World War II Combat Film: Anatomy of a Genre, as a continuation of my education in media studies. Also in the pipeline are more essays by David Lavery, and Owen Barfield’s Saving the Appearances.

After all, it’s good to let the mind romp about a bit, I think.