Review – Totto-chan

Totto-chan: The Little Girl at the Window

by Tetsuko Kuroyanagi, published 1981

What a wonderful book! I’ve never read anything quite like it, although it reminded me quite a bit of various Hayao Miyazaki animated films I’ve seen in the past. “Totto-chan” is a memoir in the guise of a novel. The author’s childhood self is the main character and the events described actually took place while she attended a creative school called Tomoe Gakuen in pre-war Tokyo. This proves to be an interesting narrative device because the story is told from the emotional and experiential point of view of a child, but with the knowingness and articulateness of an adult. The obvious fondness or at least understanding of the author toward her younger self serves to enhance the overall sensation of empathy the story engenders, for that is the primary theme of the school and what the children were learning there.

Led by the visionary headmaster, Sosaku Kobayashi, the Tomoe school’s philosophy is built on trusting children to be themselves, “let nature lead” as Kobayashi put it. The story is filled with anecdotes of Totto-chan and her classmates being entrusted to figure things out for themselves, with adults and authority figures like the headmaster and parents simply listening and providing confidence that the children will succeed in coming up with workable solutions as they learn to navigate the world around them. Mistakes and slipups (such as Totto-chan falling into the school’s cesspool) are treated with dignity and patience. Instruction and structure come in the form of simple guidelines (for lunch, students were asked to bring “something from the hills and something from the sea”) with the belief that the children will be motivated to find their own solution with a limited amount of information.

The effect on the children is a unique sensation of freedom and capability, of openness and consideration of themselves and the needs of others. Seemingly without encouragement, the school spontaneously forms a meaningful, interested sense of community and ownership by the students toward their school grounds, neighborhood and classmates. Left to pursue their studies and interests at their own pace, some students excel through deep study and careful focus of a particular subject while others enjoy sampling disparate bits of knowledge and experience without a plan. All students appear happy and enthusiastic about their lives, even those students who come to the school with severe developmental handicaps. As the author says, this liberty allowed a lot of children who were misfits in the standard schooling regime to find a sense of ease and belonging and to go on to live productive, independent and connected lives as adults.

The story gives the reader a glimpse of an educational philosophy and pedagogical approach that is at once intuitive and mysterious: why shouldn’t every school demonstrate such empathy and concern for its students; and how DOES Mr. Kobayashi manage to have such patience and a sunny disposition toward the antics of small children that are considered so “obnoxious” by nearly everybody else? The epilogue of the story summarizes some of the research travel Kobayashi performed in Europe for several years leading up to the founding of the Tomoe school and it becomes clear that there is a dedicated, principled purposefulness to every single event in the story, which the author as an adult reflects upon in the present with a “Oh, so THAT must have been what Mr. Koboyashi was trying to teach us there…” To a cynical mind it may seem almost exploitative to be so cunning in one’s schemes, but if the ultimate goal of the approach is to develop in the students the maxim “Trust yourself”, how nefarious could this stratagem actually be?

The school seems like a very “social” place and less like an academy– numerous field trips, “sports” days, music and exercise classes and camping overnights pepper the plot and while there is a library and scenes of students doing self-directed physics studies with alcohol burners and beakers, they always take place in Tomoe’s disused railroad cars-cum-classrooms. It’s a challenge only to those readers with a constricted view of what education and learning necessarily mean. For Kobayashi and his students, every experience brings teachable moments and the question begged and answered is why reading about flora and fauna in a textbook is a superior approach when one can go outside for a walk and study the variety of life up close.

From the view of paranoid American parenting, the children disrobing with their teachers and swimming naked together in the school’s small pool will seem like a perfect opportunity for secret child abusers amongst the faculty to get their jollies. But the lesson here seems to be that every choice in life brings with it risks and if bathing suit-less swim time is a useful means for helping the children (especially the physically handicapped) to appreciate and accept their differences and similarities such that they can have confidence about who they are and act with kindness towards everyone else, the risk of something monstrous or mean-spirited in such an environment might be a better risk to take than watching certain individuals grow up feeling alienated from themselves and others for lack of such experiences.

Indeed, those same paranoid parents would be wondering how a child could ever develop a moral sense without correction and punishment from adults. It is enjoyable, then, to witness the many moments when Totto-chan attempts to do something underhanded or less than honest (with herself, her parents or her friends) but recognizes the moral inconsistency of her actions on her own and eventually makes amends and moves on. It makes you think that children are capable of so much more than they are given credit for, typically, and that maybe the moral failings of children reflect not their immaturity, but the perverse incentives of the adults who guide them.

This is a humorous book, as well. There were many moments when I couldn’t help but laugh out loud and recount a passage to someone nearby, they’re just too good not to share. And thankfully, there are moments of profound tragedy and despair. I say thankfully, because it is in these recollections that we are truly reminded of how precious life is and what a wonderful gift a school like Tomoe is.

One of those tragedies is that the Tomoe school burned to the ground near the finale of the Pacific War as Tokyo came under increased firebombing by the US Air Force. It’s a stark reminder of the injudiciousness and unfairness of war, even though it is recounted without particular frustration or anger on the part of the author (a testament to the empathetic spirit of the school itself!) But there is also a lesson in the resilience of the creative spirit, as Kobayashi’s only response is to ask, “What kind of school shall we build next?”

The good news is that we don’t have to suffer war or burn our schools down to ask that question ourselves.

I think this book can be enjoyed by children, parents, families, teachers and social theorists and anyone concerned with building a more empathetic society built upon respect for the individual and the instinct of trusting oneself.

Review – Citizens

Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution

by Simon Schama, published 1990

An attempt at an analytical reading

I’ve been reading as many books as ever lately, but I haven’t had the time or the interest to review much of what I have read perhaps in part because my reading has felt rather “aimless”. It isn’t that I am reading a random assortment of books willy-nilly with no unifying logic to why I take them off the shelf, it is more about not having a particular purpose as I read, failing to annotate and highlight and thus make the book my own and therefore ending up with the feeling of “What did I take away from this?”

Luckily for me, I read a book several years ago called “How To Read A Book” and posted what I think was a rather excellent summary of its main ideas. I went back to this post a few days ago as I became acutely aware of my perception of my recent reading experiences and looked it over and in so doing gained resolve.

As I work through this review, I aim to discuss the following:

  1. Classification of the book according to kind and subject matter
  2. State the “unity” of the book with utmost brevity
  3. Enumerate its major parts in their order and relation
  4. Define the problem the author is trying to solve
  5. Grasp the author’s leading propositions by dealing with its most important sentences
  6. Know the author’s arguments by a sequence of sentences
  7. Determine which problems were solved and which were not
  8. Do not criticize until you can say “I understand”
  9. Do not disagree disputatiously (arguing to argue) or contentiously (being controversial for the sake of controversy)
  10. Demonstrate the difference between knowledge and opinion by presenting reasons for criticism
  11. If criticizing, demonstrate where the author is misinformed, uninformed, illogical or incomplete

Now, #5 is going to be tough because as I mentioned, I didn’t bother annotating or underlining anything in this book. I really don’t have an easy way to reference key ideas or moments where the author built his argument. Similarly, #6 is a challenge. Instead, I am working with my general impression of the text having completed it.

I also want to avoid criticism of the author and his treatment and focus on my own understanding of the subject as gleaned from the book. Although I’ve studied the events in detail at other times in my academic history and through other books (The Days of the French Revolution) I am by no means an expert on the period and I certainly haven’t read or investigated it enough to spot errors in the author’s knowledge or specific arguments. Instead, my desire is to explore what I took away from the reading and what about my own cognitive abilities or knowledge hindered me from getting more.

In that vein, one of the things HTRAB recommends is to read with the following question in mind: “What problem was the author trying to solve in writing this book?”

Related to this is the personal question: “Why am I reading this book? What question do I hope to answer by reading it?”

Origins

So why did I read “Citizens”? I’ve been exploring the cause of political revolutions for several years and over time my perspective is coalescing around the idea that there is no such thing as a popular revolution– that all political change occurs at the top and is pushed down rather than occurring at the bottom and destabilizing the top. My view is that a political system always has a set of elites at the top who control it (the “in elites”) and a set of elites who can be grouped as those without power but aiming to influence power or agitating to get it themselves (the “out elites”). These two groups are always in conflict with one another and while they may use non-elite social groups as a tool in the struggle, these non-elite groups never act autonomously or without the express authority and direction of one of the elite groups.

In ancient monarchic regimes, this view can be clearly exemplified by “intrigues of court” in which the monarch, his friends and his family are constantly fighting to maintain power against antagonized aristocratic groups and other claimants to the throne (internally) and foreign powers seeking domination or control (externally), with the frequent circumstance that foreign intrigues come to dominate internal politics and vice versa.

The two major countervailing examples of this theory are the American and French Revolutions, both of which were supposed to be popular uprisings against corrupt central authorities which results in a wholesale transformation of the political landscape. The more I studied the American Revolution, the more it became obvious that, for example, the Continental Congress was a group of colonial elites claiming representation of “the people” who were conspiring not for more liberty but to have and to create the power of the colonial government themselves in opposition to the British king and parliament. The French Revolution, then, seemed to stand alone as a popular affair.

The question: “Was the French Revolution an example of a spontaneous popular uprising or does it conform to the theory of elite conflict?”

I chose “Citizens” to explore this question because Simon Schama’s thesis is an explicit answer to that question: the French Revolution was not a popular uprising but an example of an elite-driven reform movement getting out of hand, and the end result of the event was not to put in place an entirely new governing structure but rather to exchange captains and confederates from one regime to another, with the means of governance and central social problems largely unchanged.

Structure

Schama divides “Citizens” into three parts:

  1. Alterations
  2. Expectations
  3. Choices

Although the text largely moves chronologically, there is some jumping ahead (often in the form of acknowledgements of a particular person’s eventual fate, or the irony of their present behavior given a later position they adopt) and back. Each chapter attempts to explore a specific theme from multiple angles and people’s perspectives. The three parts of the book chronologically explore the ancien regime of Louis XVI, the events of the French Revolution leading up to the end of the monarchy and the formation of the revolutionary Republic and finally the implosion of the Republic into the Directory and the Terror.

As the title of the book suggests, another way to think of these parts is the changing conception of the French public (elites and commoners) from the subjects of a monarchy, to the citizens of a republic and finally, to un-personhood during the paranoia of the Terror in which everyone was suspect and might be tried and executed as a threat at any time. A final thematic overlay are the ideas and periods of reform, revolution and repression and retrogression.

The argument, outlined

In the first part, Schama explores the idea that rather than being a squalid, repressive and backward political entity, the French Monarchy of the late 1700’s was progressive-minded (even for its time) and was already engaged in various reforms up to the eve of the events which came to be known as the French Revolution. While the French state consisted of a large and growing bureaucracy and a complicated and at times oppressive tax authority, the monarch and his ministers were civic-minded and future-oriented and saw themselves as having a duty to improving the lives and welfare of the common public. From supporting internal trade freedoms to celebrating technological achievements (hot air balloons were an exciting development of the times), the French monarchy was engaged in a process of self-criticism and analysis and attempting to implement the “state of the art” in a variety of fields.

One major challenge to this effort was the financial overhang of the Seven Years’ War and French sponsorship of the American War of Independence which resulted in repeated strains and logjams as the monarchy tried to fund current expenditures. Another was the sense amongst many out elites, including a rising professional class of bureaucrats who had purchased or gained their office through personal qualification, that the reform movement wasn’t going fast enough and left too many undue privileges in the hands of hereditary nobles and entitled clergy.

This reform movement occurred against a backdrop of philosophical debate. While some elites held on to ancient notions of nobility, gentility and class, and new class of professional elites were held in thrall to the naturalism and humanism of Rousseau, who “Citizens” portrays as a peerless thought-leader amongst the aggrieved counter-elite. Rousseau held up a notion of primitive equality, simplicity and “sensibilite” as the hallmarks of an enlightened society in contrast to the ranks and obligations, splendor and sentimentality of the monarchy and aristocratic society.

Transitions

The Revolution itself began as series of largely disconnected challenges to the power of the king and his ministers which initially aimed at testing their resolve and forcing their hand with regards to particular reforms. Over a short period of time, however, the various agitators united around a common theme– first, opposition to the monarchy itself and promotion of the establishment of competing institutions of social power (the Legislative Assembly) and later, the wholesale destruction of the monarchy and nobility as a threat to the revolutionary movement.

What is fascinating about this period is observing who the revolutionaries were. Not the members of the lynch mobs and other mass movements, but the members of the Legislative Assembly and other successive political bodies. These people were mostly current minor and major nobility, clergy, and many legal professionals and provincial politicians. The king’s own cousin, the Duc d’Orleans, was one of the leading revolutionaries (until he was guillotined in the ensuing hysteria of the Revolution) whose residence in Paris was a hotbed of anti-monarchic intellectualism and activity.

Although Paris fishwives drove the cannon to Versaille, none sat in the Legislative Assembly. Though artisans and other manual laborers helped tear down the Bastille, none spoke in the National Convention. And while peasants were recruited for the revolutionary militias to fight counter-revolutionaries foreign and domestic, no peasant’s son was a member of the Directory.

The revolution lost

The murder of Louis XVI, his wife and many of his ministers marked the physical end of the monarchy and the dawn of an elite civil war which culminated in the submission of the Republic at the feet of an even more powerful central authority, the military dictator and self-styled emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte. With the legitimacy of power itself questioned by the revolution, it seems only natural that the logical outcome would be a series of murderous battles for power ending in the dominance of a military figure.

As I read the book and watched one “patriot” after another turn on each other and seek the shedding of blood as a solution to all crises and recriminations I wondered how much of the paranoia was sincere versus concocted to serve a short-term political purpose. Although launched by out elites originally, the Revolution created no stable platform for the in elites to control and thus the political competition intensified dramatically. The constant accusations of foreign plots and emigres counter-revolutionary schemes at times seemed constructed and artificial, yet the universalist tone of the French Revolution and the intermarriage of European political elites across national boundaries meant there were good reasons why foreign outsides wanted “in”, too.

Closing remarks

One of my biggest challenges with this book is my inability to pronounce French words and names, and my limited understanding of many of the French terms and locations introduced, many of which I was unsure if they were properly defined before being relied upon in the narrative. For example, the term “ci-devant” was used in nearly every chapter, sometimes multiple times, but when I looked it up in the index for its first instance I saw no way to define the term other than a better reading of context than I had. I realize I should’ve looked it up right away, it refers to a “reactionary” political person and in the context of the French Revolution connoted an elite who resisted the changes brought about. This is a good example of the value of HTRAB’s suggestions of focusing on key language an author uses to make his arguments and studying the usage itself!

Relatedly, I struggled to keep track of all the major figures of the period, and there were many in part because this period convulsed much of French society but also partly because so many met grisly ends and had their responsibilities taken up by another who in turn became prominent in the proceedings.

Something I really enjoyed about Schama’s writing was its referencing of artistic works of the period which illustrated the events. It’s not so much that I am a simpleton who prefers words to pictures but rather, I felt the selection and abundance of imagery served to capture the mood and subtleties of various moments that are hard to appreciate in just reading about them. Especially interesting from this standpoint are the various “ideal imagery” commissioned by the revolutionary government to celebrate fallen heroes. The way these people are depicted, the details emphasized, the details left out and the obvious attempt to actively control the moral tone of events demonstrated the important role forms of propaganda played in elevating one faction and lowering another as the civil war raged on. The fetishism of the Roman Republic and its heroes and martyrs was also telling and very Rousseauian in the sense of idealizing noble savagery.

Is it not obvious that a revolution is betrayed by obsessing about the establishment of norms and structures which belong to the past?

I believe Simon Schama wanted to demonstrate that the Revolution was not spontaneous and grassroots, but an elite phenomenon, thus satisfying my curiosity. I think he also was concerned with highlighting the violence of the Revolution as a necessary part and logically-connected to its ideals, rather than something that was a minor theme or an unsightly outlier aspect. In both of these efforts, I believe he succeeded. I think I would’ve gotten much more out of this book if I had done more to “make it my own” as I read it. That being said, I enjoyed the read overall and found it truly terrifying contemplating how violent things can become when the out elites give up on working within the system. This was a strange observation for me to make because I don’t think of myself as a defender of the status quo or anxious to see a measured pace for reform and political change– just the opposite. I found myself wondering “which side” I would’ve taken, and what I might have done to ensure I survived to the end!

Review – The Enterprise Of Law: Justice Without The State

Bruce Benson’s The Enterprise of Law: Justice Without The State is almost guaranteed to shock and upbraid the ear of a mainstream political thinker, but for those considering alternatives or who are already familiar with or sympathetic to the kind of argument Benson puts forth, the work proves musical.

As Benson states in the introduction,

Anyone who would even question the “fact” that law and order are necessary functions of government is likely to be considered a ridiculous, uninformed radical by most observers… But even though most academics do not question the logic of government domination of law and the maintenance of order, large segments of the population do… Privately produced crime detection and prevention, arbitration, and mediation are growth industries in the United States.

Benson’s study is an example of applied economic theory. Rather than attempting to develop a new body of economic theory which explores the logic of market-supplied legal and security services which are currently provisioned (poorly) by the State, Benson is instead taking that theory as developed by earlier thinkers and applying it in a variety of ways to historical and imagined human experience. He first sets out to survey the history of law through this lens to show the way in which the State encroached on privately-provided law to further its other social agendas. He then moves on to an examination of various econo-historical studies performed by academics to show the current extent to which private citizens in the US have already turned to market-supplied legal and security services. Following this, Benson turns to similar studies to demonstrate empirically the failure and corruption of government law. Finally, he explores the logic of how market-supplied law might come to totally supersede government law in the future and why this would not be an epic social disaster.

Customary Law and Restitution

Benson’s arguments about the failures of the modern legal system as administered by the State seem obvious when one learns of two legal concepts which have since been lost to history, the origination of law through custom and social practice, and the focus of law on providing restitution to victims rather than punishment to aggressors. Benson defines law as,

both rules of conduct and the mechanisms or processes for applying those rules.

Under customary law, which is prevalent in all “primitive” societies without developed State institutions (and which undergirds modern American statutory law as the much heralded “Common Law” tradition), rules of conduct emerge from the values, beliefs and interactions of communities of people. When a conflict arises, the aggrieved parties take their case before a mutually-trusted third party, a judge, who hears the concerns of each party and attempts to place their disagreement into the context of previous decisions and existing cultural practices while also considering any novelty to the present circumstances. He then provides a ruling and a judgment of the restitution the aggrieved party might seek from his aggressor to make him whole.

Although customary law develops on a case-by-case basis,

collective action can be achieved through individual agreements, with useful rules spreading to other members of a group.

Under customary law, incentives matter and

good rules that facilitate interaction tend to be selected over time, while bad decisions are ignored.

The end result is that customary law is characterized by:

  1. being socially and culturally aligned with the population in question, which increases the likelihood it is respected and considered valuable by all social participants
  2. responsiveness and continual “improvement” and updating as social norms change through practice and experience
  3. simplicity, because rules are only developed as needed due to novel circumstances, and often disagreements are settled by referring to existent custom or prior precedent
  4. fairness, because the emphasis is making a wronged party whole, thereby permitting the guilty party to return to civil society after “repaying their debt”

Compare this to the legislative law of the State, which is characterized by:

  1. a professed goal of molding or shaping the target population to behave in novel ways according to the new law, without regard to previous cultural practice
  2. both stagnation and hyper-novelty; stagnation in that a law once on the books rarely comes off and may continue to remain “in force” even when the circumstances it addressed are no longer relevant, and hyper-novel in that the law might be changed and added to more quickly than local cultural practice changes
  3. complexity, because rules are developed and adopted as quickly as special interest groups can lobby for them, and no existing dispute or claim of harm need come before a law can be passed
  4. lack of fairness, because restitution is rarely made to actual victims under the law and many laws promote cases which have no empirically-identifiable victim other than “the State” whose laws have been violated

An important corollary idea here is that true law is discovered through practice and experimentation, whereas statutory law is created and imposed by special interest group pressure and a desire to redistribute social resources.

The Rise of Authoritarian Law

There’s a bit more to it than that, but for a general outline to support the argument this will suffice for now. If customary law is superior to legislative law in providing responsive, fair (ie, “just”) legal structure for society, how is it that legislative law has come to dominate in the modern era? Could customary law not keep up with the rapid pace of change in society marking the modern era, or was there some other flaw or shortcoming of the approach that made State-administered law more “practical” and thus dominant?

Two facts of social history help explain the rise of legislated law. The first is that the philosophy of freedom is a recent phenomenon as a coherent and consistent body of thought. It was incredibly difficult for groups of people even a few hundred years ago to articulate resistance to encroaching State power in terms of abstract personal liberties that were being conceded now or in the future as a necessary consequence of some new rule being imposed. Philosophically, no true, long-term oriented resistance to the principle of State law was being advanced or could be advanced. The second is that history (especially early Western history and, relevant to the experience of Americans, early British and Anglo-Saxon history) is marked by continuous warfare amongst social groups, and warfare promotes the centralization of power in the hands of a dictator (read: a king) who is tasked with leading the group to victory over its enemies. This warfare not only increases the king’s prestige and makes it easier for him to make new claims on power as necessary to protect the population from outside aggression, it also creates the conditions which necessitate his continually raising finance to prosecute his wars which make mulcting via the legal system a logical course of action.

Benson demonstrates these ideas through reference to the rise of “king’s courts” alongside common law or customary courts in medieval England. Over time these king’s courts not only claimed sole jurisdiction on settling specific disputes (ie, monopoly over competitive private solutions), but they also invented an entire body of offenses (felony crime) with no victim other than “the king’s peace” which allowed the king to extract rents from the population in the form of trial and court fees, fines and punishments, jail bonds, etc. In time, the king’s courts came to dominate legal practice just as the power and prestige of the English king and his state rose accordingly. One social consequence, of many, was a worsening effectiveness of “the law” as a social mechanism and a lowering of the status of the individual and his rights in society, primarily because

The attributes of customary legal systems include an emphasis on individual rights because recognition of legal duty requires voluntary cooperation of individuals through reciprocal arrangements.

In other words, individual rights and customary legal systems go hand in hand, whereas collectivism and legislative legal systems are partners in crime. This is an important and often overlooked point for advocates of greater personal liberty!

Conclusion

What I have summarized above is only the first fifth of the book, and even then it is missing all manner of interesting detail and further argumentation that paint a truly rich philosophical picture for those interested in the role law plays in civil society. While the book is not without its faults, they’re relatively minor overall and Benson’s focus on empirical studies will prove especially valuable for those who prefer concrete evidence of principles in action. This is a title that is not only excellent for returning to as a reference when formulating arguments but whose implications for reorganizing society are profound and worth pondering at length.