Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for the ‘Non-fiction’ Category

Educated: A Memoir

Posted by nliakos on October 7, 2019

by Tara Westover (Random House, 2018)

Reading the story of Tara Westover, who was raised by fundamentalist Mormon parents on an Idaho mountain but who managed to earn a PhD. in history from Cambridge, was for me similar to reading a good mystery or thriller: once I got started, I couldn’t stop.  Her life on the mountain was so alien, the neglect she suffered from her father and the abuse inflicted on her by one of her brothers so unbelievable, and the way she internalized their misogyny so complete, I was driven to read on to find out how she escaped her destiny as an uneducated wife, mother, herbalist, and midwife.

She was aided and abetted in her escape by members of her family, like the brother who first made it to college, and to some extent her mother, a weak woman whose will bent to that of her (apparently mentally deranged) husband, but who at crucial times gave Tara the support she needed to break away.

Her experiences in college, after spending most of her childhood unschooled and then studying an ACT prep book on her own, were surreal. Think of an alien plopped down in a classroom, expected to know what to do. She did not understand that she was expected to read her textbooks, how to write a paper, how to prepare for a test. The surrealism increases when she travels to Cambridge University, first with a group of fellow Brigham Young University students and later as a graduate student. She was fortunate to find professors at BYU and at Cambridge who recognized her extraordinary ability and who went out of their way to mentor her.

But it was not easy to break away from the pull of her family and her religion. In the end, she managed it, but the story of how she did it is what makes the book so compelling.

Interesting quote, from Westover’s undergraduate days at BYU:

A few days before finals, I sat for an hour with my friend Josh in an empty classroom. He was reviewing his applications for law school. I was choosing my courses for the next semester,

“If you were a woman,” I asked, “Would you still study law?”

Josh didn’t look up. “If I were a woman,” he said, “I wouldn’t want to study it.”

But you’ve talked of nothing except law school for as long as I’ve known you,” I said. “It’s your dream, isn’t it?” 

“It is,” he admitted. “But it wouldn’t be if I were a woman. Women are made differently. They don’t have this ambition. Their ambition is for children.” He smiled at me as if I knew what he was talking about. And I did. I smiled, and for a few seconds we were in agreement.

Then: “But what if you were a woman, and somehow you felt exactly as you do now?”

Josh’s eyes fixed on the wall for a moment. He was really thinking about it. Then he said, “I’d know something was wrong with me.”

I’d been wondering whether something was wrong with me since the beginning of the semester, when I’d attended my first lecture on world affairs. I’d been wondering how I could be a woman and yet be drawn to unwomanly things.

To find out how she was able to break out of this misogynistic Mormon mold and reach for the sky, you have to read the book.

Posted in Memoir, Non-fiction | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

21 Lessons for the 21st Century

Posted by nliakos on October 7, 2019

by Yuval Noah Harari (Spiegel & Grau, 2018) (I read the randomhousebooks.com electronic version)

As Yuval Noah Harari explains in his Introduction to 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, “In this book I want to zoom in on the here and now. My focus is on current affairs and on the immediate future of human societies. What is happening right now? What are today’s greatest challenges and most important choices? What should we teach our kids?”

Although I was spellbound by Harari’s Coursera MOOC “A Brief History of Humankind” in 2013, this is the first of his books I have actually read (though Sapiens has been on my to-read list since I took the MOOC, and Homo Deus is already in my Nook library). I remember Dr. Harari’s video presentations. He always sat in the same armchair with a floor lamp beside it. There was a video screen next to him, but he rarely used it. Instead, he kept us enthralled with his words, sitting there with no notes, just talking into the camera. It was amazing. 21 Lessons reminds me of that, a little. While I was not enthralled (more like depressed) as I read it, he constantly got me to look at things in a fresh new way, just as he did in the course.

I was expecting something more along the lines of On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, but 21 Lessons is more like the reworking of previously published articles, supplemented by responses to reader questions. That said, there is plenty here to learn and think about, written succinctly and clearly, with relevant examples taken from numerous countries around the globe as well as from Harari’s personal experiences (something he did not talk about at all in the MOOC).

Order of chapter topics:

Part I: The Technological Challenge (Ch. 1: Disillusionment; Ch. 2: Work; Ch. 3: Liberty; Ch. 4: Equality)

Part II: The Political Challenge (Ch. 5: Community; Ch. 6: Civilization; Ch. 7: Nationalism; Ch. 8: Religion; Ch. 9: Immigration)

Part III: Despair and Hope (Ch. 10: Terrorism; Ch. 11: War; Ch. 12: Humility; Ch. 13: God; Ch. 14: Secularism)

Part IV: Truth (Ch. 15: Ignorance; Ch. 16: Justice; Ch. 17: Post-Truth; Ch. 18: Science Fiction)

Part VI: Resilience (Ch. 19: Education; Ch. 20: Meaning; Ch. 21: Meditation)

Some of the main take-aways:

  • People think in stories. Most of them are fictional. The one my friends and I prefer is “the liberal story”. But it’s not the only one out there. (A related thought: “from a political perspective, a good science fiction movie is worth far more than an article in Science or Nature.)
  • In the future, most people could become irrelevant (“a massive new ‘useless class'”) as powerful elites use bio-technology to turn themselves into a kind of super-human. “It is much harder to struggle against irrelevance than against exploitation.” We might even split into two separate species. The crucial difference is “who owns the data”. But how do we regulate data?
  • The Artificial Intelligence Revolution will transform the future job market.  “No job will remain absolutely safe from automation.”
  • Humans make most of their decisions based on emotion, not rational thought. Emotions are “biochemical mechanisms that all mammals and birds use in order to quickly calculate probabilities of survival and reproduction”. In other words, “feelings. . . embody evolutionary rationality.”
  • Human communities have always been characterized by inequality. Equality gained ground in the 20th century, but inequality is now growing again.
  • All humans today share a global civilization which recognizes nation states, money, and shared scientific, medical, and technological knowledge.
  • The success of Homo Sapiens is due in large part to our propensity to think in groups and to cooperate.
  • People don’t like too many facts. “The world has simply become too complicated for our hunter-gatherer brains.”
  • The three main challenges facing humankind are the nuclear challenge, the ecological challenge, and the technological challenge, which together “add up to an unprecedented existential crisis.” Four questions for any candidate for office:
    • If elected, how will you reduce the risk of nuclear war?
    • How will you fight climate change?
    • How would you regulate technologies such as AI and bioengineering?
    • How do you see the world of 2040?
  • There are three kinds of problems: technical problems, policy problems, and identity problems. Religion is relevant only to identity problems.
  • Immigration is a deal with three basic conditions.
    • Term 1: The host country allows the immigrants in.
    • Term 2: The immigrants embrace at least the core norms and values of the host country.
    • Term 3: If the immigrants assimilate enough, over time they become equal and full members of the host country.
    • We need to have a consensus on the meaning of the three terms before we can have a debate on immigration.
  • Terrorism is a military strategy used by groups that are too weak to really damage their enemy materially. Don’t panic over terrorist actions because in the end their effect is usually very small. “There is an astounding disproportion between the actual strength of the terrorists and the fear they manage to inspire.”
  • Jews are less important in world history than either they or their detractors think.
  • Monotheism made people less tolerant of others.
  • A moral person is one who reduces the suffering of others.
  • Two rules of thumb:
    • If you want reliable information, you should be prepared to pay for it.
    • If an issue is really important to you, read the relevant scientific literature about it.
  • Students don’t need more information (facts). They need to know how to make sense of the information they have.

Favorite quotes:

  • Democracy in its present form cannot survive the merger of biotech and infotech. Either democracy will successfully reinvent itself in a radically new form or humans will come to live in “digital dictatorships.”
  • Intelligence is the ability to solve problems. Consciousness is the ability to feel things such as pain, joy, love, and anger.
  • The economic system pressures me to expand and diversify my investment portfolio, but it gives me zero incentive to expand and diversify my compassion.
  • If you don’t feel at home in your body, you will never feel at home in the world.
  • We are all members of a single rowdy global civilization.
  • Xenophobia is in our DNA.
  • Identities are a crucial historical force. . . . All mass identities are based on fictional stories, not on scientific facts or even on economic necessities.
  • Terrorists resemble a fly that tries to destroy a china shop. The fly is so weak that it cannot move even a single teacup. So how does a fly destroy a china shop? It finds a bull, gets inside its ear, and starts buzzing. The bull goes wild with fear and anger, and destroys the china shop. This is what happened after 9/11, as Islamic fundamentalists incited the American bull to destroy the Middle Eastern china shop. Now they flourish in the wreckage. 
  • Questions you cannot answer are usually far better for you than answers you cannot question.
  • Home sapiens is a post-truth species, whose power depends on creating and believing fictions.
  • When a thousand people believe some made-up story for one month, that’s fake news. When a billion people believe it for a thousand years, that’s a religion. . . .
  • Humans have a remarkable ability to know and not know at the same time. Or, more correctly, they can know something when they really think about it, but most of the time they don’t think about it, so they don’t know it.
  • Truth and power can travel together only so far. Sooner or later they go their separate paths. If you want power, at some point you will have to spread fictions. If you want to know the truth about the world, at some point you will have to renounce power.
  • As a species, humans prefer power to truth.
  • A ritual is a magical acts that makes the abstract concrete and the fictional real.
  • If by “free will” you mean the freedom to do what you desire, then yes, humans have free will. But if by “free will” you mean the freedom to choose what to desire, then no, humans have no free will.

One thing I really enjoyed in particular was how Harari explains his points with reference to art (Hamlet, Inside Out, Brave New World, The Lion King…).

 

Posted in History, Non-fiction, Politics, Religion, Philosophy, Culture, Science | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Over the Hills and Far Away: The Life of Beatrix Potter

Posted by nliakos on September 30, 2019

by Matthew Dennison (Pegasus 2017)

When my daughter was young, I bought her a stack of Beatrix Potter’s “little books” on sale at Borders. Later, we supplemented them with books on tape (replaced later by CDs) and videos. At 27, she is still enamored of these quirky little tales, as am I, and we both loved the movie Miss Potter, a dramatization of the author/illustrator’s life. I always wondered how much of that was fictionalized and how much was based on fact, so when I saw this book on the biography shelves of my local library, I took it out. It did not disappoint! I learned that the movie was largely accurate; however, Norman Warne’s illness and death were apparently embellished. Warne died of leukemia, not of an illness contracted because he saw Beatrix off on her forced vacation in the rain, as was implied in the film. Beatrix’s girlhood acquaintance with William Heelis, whom she would later marry, is not mentioned in the book and was probably invented by the director. But no matter. The film is wonderful, the book is wonderful, Beatrix Potter’s creations are wonderful. I loved the way Dennison illustrates his book with Potter’s drawings and refers constantly to the various animal characters in the “little books”, relating the stories to the places where she lived and the events in her life. Having read almost all of her oeuvre (I somehow managed to miss The Fairy Caravan–must look for it in the library), these references greatly added to my enjoyment of the biography.

Posted in Biography, Non-fiction | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

My Beloved World

Posted by nliakos on August 30, 2019

by Sonia Sotomayor (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013)

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor calls this a memoir rather than an autobiography, but I think autobiography is more apt. Although it does not talk about her time as a federal judge or on the high court, her life story leading up to her first appointment to the federal bench (the accomplishment of her lifelong goal, to be a judge) is told with great honesty and completeness. Her judicial career being still in progress, she chose not to describe it.

I had only the vaguest notion of who Sonia Sotomayor was before I read the book; having read it, I now hold her in the highest regard. She has faced adversity (a diagnosis of Type I diabetes as a young child; poverty; parents who did not get along, and a father who eventually left) but prevailed due to her own hard work and her open, probing mind. She could be the poster child for the Encyclopedia Britannica, having educated herself far beyond what she was taught in school by reading the home set her mother scrimped and saved to purchase for Sonia and her brother. She is a role model for every struggling student who overcomes linguistic differences to learn to write clearly and forcefully and who learns to think critically and argue a point, rather than just to regurgitate memorized facts. She writes candidly of her marriage and divorce to her childhood sweetheart, and of her acceptance of her single state and childlessness. Having succeeded in a legal career as a Latina woman “from the projects”, she has experienced discrimination and prejudice but has never allowed them to stand in the way of her desire to seek justice for others. Her story is truly an inspiration. I loved this book.

 

Posted in Autobiography, Memoir, Non-fiction | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Report on the Investigation into Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election

Posted by nliakos on July 10, 2019

by Robert Mueller (and presumably other unnamed writers from the investigation staff) (The Washington Post, 2019)

I read the Washington Post e-book, which includes an introduction by Post writers Rosalind S. Helderman and Matt Zapotosky and concludes with Marc Fisher and Sari Hornstein’s Feb. 2018 article comparing and contrasting Mueller and Trump. In between is over 500 pages of report: Volume I, on the actual Russian interference (brazen and well-documented), and Volume II, on Obstruction of Justice, on the various ways Trump and his underlings sought to fire the Special Counsel, impede the investigation, and keep what was done from seeing the light of day. Each volume has its own Executive Summary, and there are lots and lots of notes, timelines, lists of characters, legal explanations, glossaries, transcripts of interviews, emails, and letters, etc. There are also lots of redacted parts, sometimes just a few words, and sometimes several pages in a row. We don’t know what we don’t know, and I wondered as I read whether other, more knowledgeable readers can make educated guesses as to what is hidden underneath.

The prose is lawyerly, clear and precise, but not scintillating, and often repetitive. (What did I expect?) There was not much that did not have a familiar ring to it; I’ve been paying attention (listening to the news, reading the newspaper), and most of this stuff has come out in one way or another. But the report puts it in chronological order, relates actions to other actions, and in so doing, makes its case. It does not come out and say that Donald Trump masterminded a conspiracy with Russian bad actors to rig the 2016 election in his favor; Mueller and his staff were unable to prove conspiracy on the part of any Americans (only that they were eager to get “dirt” on Hillary Clinton and didn’t care who was offering it to them). But the case for obstruction of justice is clearer. In each case, Mueller presents the evidence and then analyzes it in terms of three requirements: Was there an obstructive act? Was there a connection (nexus) to an official proceeding? And was there an intent to obstruct justice? Intent is the most difficult to show. Mueller often confesses that the investigators were unable to establish intent. Trump’s refusal to be interviewed or to give real answers to Mueller’s written questions made this more difficult. Mueller was working under very difficult conditions. He did the best he could, and then handed the baton to Congress, which continues to dilly-dally when it should be firing up an inquiry into the case for impeachment of this President.

Every American should read this book. But it’s long and tedious, so for Vol. II, I recommend watching The Investigation: A Search for the Truth in Ten Acts, written by Robert Schenkkan and produced by Law Works. It is also very helpful to watch the videos at the Mueller Book Club, which feature interviews with major players, like Rep. Jerrold Nadler of the House Judiciary Committee and former Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman, who served on the Judiciary Committee during the Nixon impeachment inquiry.

You can buy it (amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com), download it (https://www.cnn.com/2019/04/18/politics/full-mueller-report-pdf/index.html), donate a copy (or several) to your local library, community center or senior center, do group readings or watch parties of The Investigation with friends or family, or watch Robert Mueller’s live public testimony before Congress on July 17. Then call your Member of Congress and tell him or her that the Mueller Report is just the beginning, and that it is past time to launch an impeachment inquiry into the unprecedented corruption of this administration and this president.

Robert Mueller ended his report with the words,”While this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”  Mueller was unable to reach that conclusion because it is Congress alone that can hold a rogue president accountable for high crimes and misdemeanors like corruption, nepotism, and abuse of power. Congress must act, but they won’t, unless and until enough constituents demand it of them.

Posted in History, Non-fiction, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Find Me Unafraid: Love, Loss, and Hope in an African Slum

Posted by nliakos on May 23, 2019

by Kennedy Odede and Jessica Posner; Forward by Nicholas Kristof (HarperCollins 2015)

Kennedy Odede grew up dirt poor in the teeming Nairobi slum of Kibera. Jessica Posner grew up in Colorado, privileged by her family’s comfortable economic situation and her white skin. They met when Jessica spent a semester in Nairobi, volunteering with SHOFCO (Shining Hope for Communities), the youth group Kennedy founded. This book tells the story of how they met, fell in love, and married (as well as the story of Kennedy’s life) in alternating chapters. What drew me to the book was the cross-cultural aspect of Jessica and Kennedy’s relationship. I was astonished by Kennedy’s frank description of the squalor in which he lived (in which people in Kibera continue to live). I wondered how he could possibly survive, despite the severe hunger endured over years, lack of basic hygiene and medical care, abuse and violence. Not only did he survive; he thrived,  became educated, and returned to Kibera to extend a helping hand to others. It’s really an inspiring story. One is not surprised that Jessica fell for Kennedy, but she does not make light of the challenges she faced living in the same conditions that Kennedy had known his entire life.

You can watch a nice TED talk that Jessica and Kennedy gave about the stages of forgiveness here.

This is an awesome book. In addition to the love story, the reader will be amazed at how Kennedy and Jessica managed to establish a free school for girls in Kibera. You can watch a short video about it here. To donate, go to https://support.shininghopeforcommunities.org/give/177552/#!/donation/checkout

Beyond this place of wrath and tears

Looms but the Horror of the shade,

And yet the menace of the years

Finds and shall find me unafraid.

From “Invictus” by William Earnest Henley

 

Posted in Autobiography, Memoir, Non-fiction | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

On Two Feet and Wings: One Boy’s Amazing Story of Survival

Posted by nliakos on April 19, 2019

by Abbas Kazerooni (Skyscape 2014)

From the front matter page: “This book is based on real events that happened to me a long time ago when I was a child. To write it for you I have simplified some events and changed some details.”

Abbas Kazerooni is a California lawyer, actor, writer, and producer. Born in Iran in 1978 to formerly wealthy (under the Shah) parents, Abbas was nine years old when the regime, at war with Iraq since 1980, lowered the age at which boys could be drafted into the army (to serve as cannon fodder, basically) to eight. Terrified, the family decided to leave Iran. Abbas’ father’s passport had been confiscated, so they determined that he would stay behind, and Abbas and his mother would travel to Turkey and eventually to the U.K., where they had relatives.

But at the last minute, Marzieh Kazerooni was denied permission to get on the plane. Desperate, the parents let Abbas fly by himself to Istanbul, where they promised he would be met by a friend who would take care of him. The man did indeed meet the plane, but he did not take care of the boy. Instead of taking him home as he had promised to do, he handed Abbas a list of cheap hotels where Farsi was spoken and left. Abbas was alone in Istanbul, where he would live for several months until he finally received a visa for the U.K.

Abbas was very young and frightened, but he was also cautious, resourceful, and very lucky, He was lucky in that he happened to meet some very kind people who helped him (the taxi driver who helped him find the least unsuitable hotel that night; the hotel receptionist, who took a liking to him; some kind compatriots who translated for him at the British Consulate; and a consulate worker who took an interest in him.  He was cautious in that he carefully hid the money his parents had sent him with, eating only once a day, spending as little as possible, testing out the hotel receptionist and maid until he felt sure he could trust them not to rob him. And he was resourceful in that he had many great ideas about how to save, and eventually how to make, money. He ran errands in the marketplace and found various jobs for himself in the hotel (where he preferred to stay, feeling unsafe on the streets of Istanbul)–as the “tea boy” who served the other guests glasses of tea, as the shoeshine boy the hotel had never had before. Through it all, he hid his fear and distress from his parents; when he spoke to them, he intimated that he was staying in a better hotel than he was actually in and that everything was fine. But he shed many tears.

Abbas’ story reads like a novel. One can’t imagine how this little boy managed on his own for so long in a strange city where he knew no one and did not speak the language. But he did, and his story makes a great read.

Unfortunately, once he reached England, his trials continued. These are recounted in another book, The Boy with Two Lives. But eventually, he made his way to the United States, where he has apparently done very well for himself–no surprise, considering how resilient and clever he was at the ago of nine.

Posted in Autobiography, Memoir, Non-fiction, Recommended for ESL or EFL Learners | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging

Posted by nliakos on April 15, 2019

by Sebastian Junger (Twelve/Hachette Book Group 2016)

This little (136 pages not counting the notes) book examines the proposition that modern “Western” society runs counter to how human beings have evolved to live and is detrimental to mental health.

In the first chapter, “The Men and the Dogs”, Junger compares Native American tribal society with European “white” society. He notes that thousands of white people joined Indian tribes (some as captives who opted to stay, some voluntarily), whereas there is not one documented instance of a Native American voluntarily wishing to join white society, and he asks what might make Indian society so appealing to us. Speaking of the period of Western expansion, he notes that both societies were characterized by (to us) abhorrent cruelty, but that Indian religion was less harsh, and the Indian lifestyle was more interesting (hunting vs. agriculture) and included more leisure time and more control over one’s own life. He quotes a white woman who lived among Indians for many years: “No people can live more happy than the Indians did in times of peace. . . Their lives were a continual round of pleasures.”

Junger alludes to the theory of self-determination, which holds that people’s three most essential needs are autonomy (or being authentic in one’s life, whatever that means), competence, and community, or connectedness. Indian tribal life tended to fulfill these needs much better than white society did, and white societies were (and are) characterized by higher rates of suicide, depression, and other mental illnesses. He postulates that our wealthy modern life style deprives us of what we need to be happy. Our children are forced to sleep alone, we are subject to more authority and have a lesser sense of well-being, there is more dishonesty and fraud (and the perpetrators often get away with egregious dishonesty that would be unthinkable in a Native American tribe–e.g., the bankers and traders that caused the Great Recession, who were never held accountable for the vast damage they inflicted on the country and people).

The second chapter, “War Makes You an Animal”, considers the dual nature of war (and other calamities as well)–for participants, it is both the best of times (increased sense of community and opportunities to prove oneself) and the worst of times (physical and mental trauma, witnessing and causing death). Junger notes that both combat veterans and residents of cities under siege miss something about their wartime experience when it is over. He writes, “Large-scale disasters produce. . . mentally healthy conditions,” and provides numerous examples (the London Blitz, the Allied bombing of Dresden, the Springhill Mine Disaster, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the 1970 Chilean earthquake) to prove his point.

In European societies, people rarely have the opportunity to exhibit courage because only certain segments of society (police, firemen. . .) are involved in rescue work and the protection of civilians. But that deprives us of something we have evolved to do and even to need. Junger writes, The beauty and tragedy of the modern world is that it eliminates many situations that require people to demonstrate a commitment to the collective good. Protected by police and fire departments and relieved of most of the challenges of survival, an urban man might go through his entire life without having to come to the aid of someone in danger–or even give up his dinner. Likewise, a woman in a society that has codified its moral behavior into a set of laws and penalties might never have to make a choice that puts her very life at risk. What would you risk dying for–and for whom–is perhaps the most profound question a person can ask themselves. The vast majority of people in modern society are able to pass their whole lives without ever having to answer that question, which is both an enormous blessing and a significant loss. It is a loss because having to face that question has, for tens of millennia, been one of the ways that we have defined ourselves as people. And it is a blessing because life has gotten far less difficult and traumatic than it was for most people even a century ago.

The third chapter, “In Bitter Safety I Awake”, continues to examine the conundrum of why people who have survived catastrophe miss something about that catastrophic experience afterwards. Junger also considers the different leadership qualities that are needed in times of peace and war (and how the Iroquois Nations had two kinds of leaders to respond to these different requirements), and he focuses on post-traumatic stress syndrome (the kind that resolves and the kind that persists) and points out that what most veterans really need is jobs (= a sense of self-worth because they are contributing to society)–not lifetime disabilities payments. Part of the problem, Junger suggests, is that civilians are typically far removed from the war experience, so they cannot understand what the returning veterans have gone through. Returning to Indian tribes of the 19th century, the entire tribe underwent the trauma of war together, so returning warriors had no sense of alienation.

The final chapter, “Calling Home from Mars”, considers what we who live in modern societies have given up in exchange for modern conveniences and comforts, and how making real sacrifices for our community could gives us a greater sense of safety, self-worth, and yes, happiness. Junger writes, There are many costs to modern society, starting with its toll on the global ecosystem and working one’s way down to its toll on the human psyche, but the most dangerous loss may be to community. If the human race is under threat in some way that we don’t yet understand, it will probably be at a community level that we either solve the problem or fail to. If the future of the planet depends on, say, rationing water, communities of neighbors will be able to enforce the new rules far more effectively than even local government. It’s how we evolved to exist, and it obviously works. But this made me think of something Yuval Noah Harari said in the MOOC we did with him a few years ago: human beings evolved to trust the individuals in the small community they lived in, up to maybe fifty people (“us), and to distrust everyone else (“them”). When the “us” consists of people of different races, religions, political and sexual preferences, native languages/cultures, and levels of education, it is not a given that they can actually build that sense of community that Junger is talking about. I would like to believe that they could, but this adds a major complication that was not there when the race was evolving.

Anyway, Junger’s book gave me a lot of food for thought, and I do agree that when we traded communal responsibility for hierarchies where only some individuals are responsible for the safety of the group, we gained something but lost something also, something important for us as human beings.

Posted in History, Non-fiction, Religion, Philosophy, Culture | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

There Will Be No Miracles Here

Posted by nliakos on April 9, 2019

by Casey Gerald (Riverhead Books 2018)

I apparently placed a hold on this book, but I can’t actually remember placing it or why I wanted to read it. Nevertheless, when I was notified that it was available, I duly went and picked it up and read it. And it was interesting. . . . I just couldn’t figure out exactly where it was going or what Casey Gerald’s significance is.

Gerald had a difficult childhood, growing up poor in Dallas; his mother suffered from mental illness and abandoned the family when he was twelve; his father, a former college football star, spent time in prison. Casey was partly brought up by his grandmother and older sister. But he was a smart kid who wanted to please, and he was a good athlete; graduating from high school, he was selected to play football for Yale, which he had never heard of, and felt disrespected when it was suggested to him: Here was my own coach, saying in so many words that I was such a pathetic football player that he’d send me halfway around the world to play peewee football for a team nobody knew anything about. Yale changed his life’s trajectory forever.

He is black; he is gay; he is a Yale man; he graduated from Harvard Business School; he led a black men’s group at Yale, traveled and gave speeches within and outside of the U.S., worked for a Democratic think tank in Washington, D.C. during the Obama administration, attended a CPAC convention to see if he wanted to become a Republican, and considered a run for Congress. Lots of interesting stuff to write about in his young life.

Gerald’s style of writing is unique. It’s not dialect, although there are dialectal elements in it; it’s not intellectual, although there are big words, complicated thoughts, and references to literature and history. There is a kind of dry humor to it as he pierces through the shield of white complacency, but there are passages that break one’s heart, as when he writes about his friend Elijah’s suicide. He is unflinchingly honest. He writes about racism, and friendship, and mentoring. He writes about manipulating the system where who you know is more important than what you know and people are easily fooled by one who has a command of the language of the ruling elite. (This reminds me of Jamila Lyiscott’s wonderful TED talk about being articulate.) I liked the book, and not knowing anything about Casey Gerald before I read it, I never knew where it was headed, so it was full of surprises for me.

Posted in Autobiography, Memoir, Non-fiction | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Fascism: A Warning

Posted by nliakos on April 8, 2019

by Madeleine Albright (with Bill Woodward; HarperCollins, 2018)

Madeleine Albright sets out to define and describe fascism, to follow its history since its inception in 1930s Italy, and to consider whether the United States, under Donald Trump, is now flirting with fascism as a replacement for our democratic government based on the law. She begins with her own personal history as a refugee from Czechoslovakia after it fell to the Communists. She asks why we are where we are, twenty-five years after we “won” the Cold War, and answers herself: One reason, frankly, is Donald Trump. If we think of fascism as a wound from the past that had almost healed, putting Trump in the White House was like ripping off the bandage and picking at the scab. No confusion about where she stands on that issue!

According to Albright, there is no single definition of fascism agreed to by all. She suggests that “Fascism should perhaps be viewed less as a political ideology than as a means for seizing and holding power.” It is neither right nor left; it is a tool. It draws its energy from the anger and resentment of people who have lost something (a war, a job, respect, confidence. . .), who are guided by a (usually) charismatic leader who  brings “deep and often ugly feelings to the surface”–Albright calls such a leader “a secular evangelist” who channels people’s desire “to be part of a meaningful quest”. Fascism is “an extreme form of authoritarian rule”, usually characterized by extreme nationalism; in a Fascist state, citizens have no rights; their mission is to serve, while the government’s mission is to rule. Albright winds up her introductory chapter with this definition: “A Fascist is someone who identifies strongly with and claims to speak for a whole nation or group, is unconcerned with the rights of others, and is willing to use whatever means are necessary–including violence–to achieve his or her goals.” (As I write this, I wonder why she capitalizes fascism. In fact, I don’t think that is correct; see the answer to this question on Quora.com. This makes sense to me, and I will not capitalize it in this post, unless I am referring to Mussolini’s Fascist Party.)

Most of the other chapters concern specific cases where fascism has reared its ugly head, beginning with the first instance when the word was used in this way (In 1919, “a few dozen angry men” began a political movement and chose a bundle of elm rods (fasces) together with an ax that had been a symbol of a Roman consul’s power; their movement became known as the Fascist movement.). Albright writes, “This was how twentieth-century Fascism, began: with a magnetic leader exploiting widespread dissatisfaction by promising all things.”

I was struck by several eerie similarities between Mussolini and Trump: it was Mussolini who first promised to “drain the swamp” (dranare la palude). He trusted himself absolutely, feeling no need for advisors; he thought his instincts were always right. He thought shaking hands unsanitary, and he had little interest in what other people had to say.

The next two chapters focus on Hitler’s Nazi Germany and Franco’s Spain; other chapters deal with  the British fascist movement of Sir Oswald Mosley, American and European fascist movements, Hungary, Stalin’s USSR, Perónism in Argentina, Omar Torrijos of Panama, and Bosnia’s Milosevic. Then Albright brings us into the present: Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Nicolás Maduro,  Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, Duterte of the Philippines, and the Kims of North Korea. “The President of the United States” gets his own chapter, and Albright is polite but damning. She doesn’t hesitate to call him out for favoring autocrats over democrats, for undermining the freedom of the press and American institutions like the courts, the FBI, and the electoral system. She notes how Trump’s bad behavior serves as a model for autocrats everywhere and gives them license to turn back democratic reforms in their countries. “His approach is that of a demagogue,” she writes. Nothing new there.

Albright includes many anecdotes from her time as Secretary of State. These are interesting, but I don’t think they add much to her argument.

As you would expect, the final chapter suggests what we might do to counter the rise of fascism in our time. She raises the following questions, and more, about political leaders:

  • Do they suggest treating people who are different as being less valuable as human beings?
  • Do they inflame the anger and resentment of their core supporters?
  • Do they encourage contempt for government, elections, the press, the judiciary?
  • Do they use patriotic symbols to turn people against each other?
  • Do they accept or contest political defeat?
  • Do they claim to be able to solve every problem? . . . .

You get the idea. . . . a good description of 45 and his authoritarian buddies around the world. The answers to such questions, she says, “will provide grounds for reassurance or a warning we dare not ignore.” There is little question as to which of these Americans will discern if they answer these questions about the current occupant of the White House. We aren’t ignoring her warning, but Trump and his hypocritical Republican enablers in the Congress will not easily give up the power they have already amassed. We are living in a perilous moment, and we don’t know how it’s going to turn out.

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