Short Book Reviews: February 2021

With the new year, Biden settling into the White House, and the vaccines rolling out, my reading pace has picked up from its previous pandemic low.

So rather than work up longer individual reviews of the books I’ve gone through, I thought I’d do a quick breakdown of them, all at once, in reverse order (so, the most recent book I finished this month is listed first).

Here we go!

Not All Dead White Men, by Donna Zuckerberg

A frustrating read. Zuckerberg (yes, the Facebook founder is her brother) provides a detailed, anthropological study of how the denizens of the manosphere wield Classical authors to promote their racist, misogynist views. What she doesn’t cover is any way to counter these arguments. If anything, she comes down on their side, agreeing that yes, the Classical tradition contains lots of misogyny (Though no racism, since race as a concept wasn’t invented till the modern period. Which makes it weird that she would fall into the right-wing trap of assigning Whiteness to the Mediterranean authors of the Classical tradition? But I digress).

The Fifth Risk: Undoing Democracy, by Michael Lewis

A set of separately-published essays stitched together in book form. It works, because each essays illuminates a different side of the central question: What happened when an administration scornful of expertise took control of the nation’s experts?

This was published in 2018, and already Lewis could see — via his interviews and investigation — that disaster was coming. We’ve got a lot to rebuild.

The Mongol Art of War, by Timothy May

Discovered this via military historian Bret Devereux’s excellent series of blog posts about the historical accuracy of the Dothraki in A Song of Ice and Fire (narrator: there is none).

It’s a fairly quick read, giving a detailed look — well, as detailed as we can get, given the reliability of our historical sources — at how the Mongol army was able to conquer so much of Asia and Europe in such a short period of time. Goes through command structure, tactics, even some detailed logistics. For example, did you know Mongols preferred riding mares on campaign, because they could drink the milk provided (and thus not need to bring as much food along)? Or that the Mongols built a navy from scratch (with Korean assistance) just so they could conquer southern China? Fascinating stuff.

Lost Art of Finding Our Way, by John Edward Huth

This is one I’m going to be reading and re-reading. It’s basically a manual of all the different navigation techniques used by humans before the invention of GPS. How did the Pacific Islanders sail thousands of miles across open ocean to settle so many islands? Why did the Atlantic triangle trade develop the way it did (hint: it was the prevailing winds)? What sequence of clouds denotes an oncoming storm?

Simply wondrous. Made me look at the world around me in an entirely new way.

Reaganland, by Rick Perlstein

The final volume in Perlstein’s excellent series on the rise of the Right in the United States. This one covers 1976-1980, and it’s absolutely riveting. All of the techniques we’ve seen from the GOP under Trump — misinformation, distortion, and deliberate hyperbole — got their start in this time period, and coalesced around Reagan as their standard-bearer. His election cemented the shift to the Right that we’ve been suffering from for the last forty years.

I consider this book essential reading, if you want to understand how we got to this point in American politics.

President’s Day, 2021

Coming in the midst of Black History Month, I can think of no better way to honor this President’s Day than to read two essays. Both by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and both published in The Atlantic, but with completely opposed subjects.

The first essay, “My President Was Black” was published a little over four years ago, in January 2017. Obama had just left office, and Coates wrote a long, reflective essay on what the Obama Presidency had meant, both for him as a Black person, and for the country as a whole. He explored Obama’s unique raising, and how that had influenced his perspective on race relations in America. He talks about how Obama achieved so much as President, despite a coalition of racist opposition that formed from his very first day in the Oval Office. And he covers how Obama disappointed him, in the way he spent more time chastising Black people for “blaming White people” and not enough time openly calling out the structures of white supremacy.

Like all of Coates’ writing, it’s powerful, it’s though-provoking, and it’s worth your time.

The second essay, “The First White President”, was published just ten months after the first, in October of 2017. Even then, Coates could see clearly what many commentators could not, until after the Capitol Riot: that Donald Trump’s entire political philosophy, such as it is, can be summed up as white nationalism. That Trump would not have been President at all, were it not for the racism that undergirds all politics in the United States. Trump was the ultimate expression of that racism, of that contempt for non-Whites. His racist supporters elected him as if to say, “True, a Black man can be President, after a lifetime of struggle and study. But any incompetent White man can trip into it, if he hates Blacks enough.”

Everything in that essay still rings true. It’s a potent reminder that Trump’s grounding in racism was always there to see, if we were willing to see it. That so many people were not willing, for so long, tells us exactly how deep white nationalism’s roots go in this country, and how much work we have left to do to pull it out.

Biden to be Sworn in as 46th President of United States

These past four years have been a waking nightmare. Every day, it’s been a barrage of lies, mismanagement, and neglect from a President with no previous governmental experience, no redeeming qualities, and no sense of duty.

2020 brought everything bad about the modern GOP right out into the open. They’re willing to let 400,000 Americans die rather than wear a piece of cloth on their face. They’re more interested in holding onto power than continuing our democracy. And they’re willing to commit sedition to get their way.

Biden and Harris will have a lot of work to do, just repairing the damage the GOP has done. But beyond that, they’ve got to contend with all the things they ignored, from the pandemic to foreign interference in our elections to the right-wing terrorists who attacked the Capitol.

And to be fair, some of the issues we need them to put a spotlight on are things we as a country have ignored for too long: racial justice, climate change, universal health care. The pandemic exposed how weak our institutions have really become, because we’ve left folks behind. That needs to stop, if we are to indeed build back better.

It’s a heavy task, but I have hope. Hope because the need for these things is out in the open, plain as the hospitals that have been overwhelmed, plain as videos of police beating up protestors and journalists, plain as the police shooting of a Black man in broad daylight as he was getting calmly into his car with his kids.

The Biden/Harris Administration isn’t an excuse for us to go back to sleep. To imagine ourselves waking up in a better country.

It’s a chance for us to get to work.

I’ll be watching the swearing-in ceremony today, live. You can view it here, on the Biden/Harris inaugural page, or on Youtube

MLK Day 2021

I realized, this morning, that I’d never read Dr King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail. So I found this copy online, and read it straight through.

It took only twenty minutes to read. But in that one letter, King evokes philosophers and thinkers from Martin Buber to St Augustine to Thomas Jefferson, laying out the justice of his cause and defending nonviolent direct action. It’s a powerful, compelling, argument.

Reading the letter, it struck me how little has changed, in how police still react with violence to Black people who are nonviolently seeking justice. In King’s day, they attacked marchers with dogs, billy clubs, and fire hoses. In ours, they do it with tear gas, rubber bullets, and tasers. But the demands are the same, and the violence committed in the name of upholding racist power is the same.

I urge you, if you haven’t before, to read the letter. And as we speed away from 2020 and into 2021, let’s remember Black people were murdered by police in 2019, and they will continue to be murdered by police in the new year, until racist power is broken, and justice is granted to all those Black families that have been told to “wait.”

I Miss Those Old-Fashioned Family Arguments

My family and I have disagreed on politics for a long time. I turned left even before going to college, rejecting the conservatism I was raised in.

Their conservative beliefs — shared by most people where I grew up, in West Texas — seemed hollow and hypocritical to me. They talked a big game about freedom, but sent me to the principal’s office for daring to wear a hat to school (only girls were allowed to wear hats in those hallowed halls, I was told). They talked up their faith, and turning the other cheek, but it was me that was supposed to turn that cheek, not them, as they let their sons bully me between classes. And they wrapped themselves in patriotism, but only for “real Americans,” like them, not liberals or Californians or anyone living back East…or me.

There was no place for me, in their America. Except at the bottom of the ladder, to be kicked and laughed at. Open season on nerds.

So I left Texas, and I left their beliefs behind. I didn’t give up on my family, though. I argued with them, often and vigorously. They were amused at my liberalism, I’m sure — there’s a smirk a right-wing person gets when they feel a leftie is talking out of their ass — but I was sincere.

And they argued back! We had good discussions, for many years. They pushed me to refine my thinking, and I used to think I was helping them, too, to see the other side of the argument. We didn’t have much in common, anymore, but we had good, old-fashioned, no-holds-barred, debates. All in good faith, and with love.

But we don’t — we can’t — argue like that anymore.

Things started changing during Obama’s presidency. I didn’t notice it at the time, but looking back a pivotal moment was when my older sister, in all seriousness, sat down across from me after dinner one night for a chat.

“I need to ask you about something,” she said. “You’re pretty up on things, you know what’s going on.”

I shrugged. “Sure, what’s up?”

“I know the IRS is building camps out here, in the desert, to round up people with guns, and you know, conservatives. So what I do, when they come for me?”

…and I was speechless.

I mean, I said all the things I thought were right: The camps weren’t real, no one was coming for her or her guns (which she doesn’t own) or conservatives in general. That President Obama had no such plans, and would never do such a thing.

She listened, and she nodded. And I thought she believed me, and felt better.

But now…Now I’m not so sure. When my family’s constantly posting things about how the election was stolen and the Democrats are all Muslims that want to put Oklahoma under Shari’a Law and Black Lives Matter protestors burned down the entire city of Portland in a single day. I feel like that conversation was my first glimpse that something was wrong, that my family was slipping from conservative to right-wing, and losing their grip on reality.

Could I have done something, said something, back then, to keep that from happening? Could I have reached out more, found conservative but reality-based news sources to help them feel comfortable staying with us in the real world?

Because I can’t have arguments with them anymore. I have to spend all my time trying to convince them that these things they fear are simply not true.

And I can’t get through to them. No matter how many news articles I link. They’re “fake news” from the “mainstream media,” and so can’t be trusted.

Not only can’t be trusted, but challenging their reality this way is taken as a personal attack. They’re not “lies” they’re “conservative facts.” I can’t…I don’t know how to respond to that.

And all the time I spend fact-checking, they’re continuing to like and re-post articles spreading hate and fear about liberals, about BLM, about…well, about me. Not directly, but people like me. My friends. My neighbors. Our fellow citizens.

I’m…angry, sure, but also sad. Because I’ve lost something that was very important to me. I’ve lost my debate partners. But more, I’ve lost my family.

And I don’t know how to get them back.

Radicals Disguised as Conservatives

My wife and I are re-watching The West Wing for the first time since Trump took office. It’s been…revelatory, to see those people and those controversies again, after the last four years. To imagine (again) a White House whose biggest scandal might be some harsh words said to a fundamentalist on television, a White House where a single lie to the Press Core can occupy a character’s arc for a whole episode.

A White House that might hire Ainsley Hayes.

If you’re not familiar with the show, Hayes is a young Republican that out-debates a high-level member of the President’s staff on a political talk show. When the President finds out, he decides to hire her to work in the White House Counsel’s office. She refuses, at first, to come work for a Democrat. But after seeing them working in the White House (as part of being there to turn the job down) the Chief of Staff summons her sense of duty, and she accepts.

I love the Ainsley Hayes character. She’s an excellent counter-weight to the arrogance of the other staff members, she’s smart and witty and optimistic amidst the daily hustle and bustle of the administration. And she faithfully represents the Republican position on issues circa 2000, right down to her objections to the Equal Rights Amendment.

It’s during an episode where she has a casual debate with another staffer on the ERA that she articulates the Republican governing philosophy:

I believe that every time the federal government hands down a new law, it leaves for the rest of us a little less freedom. So I say, let’s just stick to the ones we absolutely need to have water come out of the faucet and our cars not stolen.

This is an absolutely accurate summation of what Republicans believed (and many still believe).

The problem is, it’s not a conservative stance. It’s a libertarian one.

Libertarians want to roll back the role of government to what it was in the pre-industrial period: foreign defense, a little bit of property law, and that’s it. That’s why the Libertarian Party wants to legalize all drugs: the War on Drugs is not in service of either of those goals.

Which is all well and good, but neither is Social Security. Or the fire department. Or public schools.

If you believe that more law means less freedom, then you have no interest in making good laws. Because the only good law is the law that never gets passed.

This stance has been masquerading as conservatism in the United States for the last few decades, but it is not conservative.

To try to recover the conservative position, let’s turn to the writer considered the progenitor of the movement, Edmund Burke:

Society cannot exist, unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without.

Hmm. Doesn’t sound like he thinks fewer laws means more freedom.

Nothing turns out to be so oppressive and unjust as a feeble government.

Oh? He doesn’t want to make government so small he can “drown it in the bathtub”?

Two more quotes, both of which, I believe, sum up the actual conservative position:

A state without the means of some change, is without the means of its own conservation.

And:

The greater the power, the more dangerous the abuse.

In other words: Modern Conservatism is opposition to radical change

That may sound like a small philosophy, but it turns out to be a big one. Burke was writing (from the safety of England) during the French Revolution, forming his philosophy out of opposition to the Terror.

He opposed both the refusal of the French aristocracy to change and the radical changes being made by Robespierre et al.

The conservatism of Burke fully believes in the power of government to do good. But it acknowledges the potential for government — like any powerful organization — to do evil.

It’s a combination of a skeptical view of the nature of people — government being necessary, in part, to protect us from our worse instincts — and a skeptical view of power wielded without check.

So while Burke might have opposed something like the ERA in his own time, someone like Burke dropped into the US of the 1970s, where women had been voting and going to college and having careers for decades, would have seen no issue with enshrining their equal status in law. In fact, he would have (rightly) seen it as a preservation of liberty against backsliding by the state.

Okay, one more quote:

The people never give up their liberties but under some delusion.

For a true conservative, one of the purposes of law is to firmly entrench the rights and liberties of the people. Thus more law can and does mean more freedom, if those laws are written correctly.

Also note that for Burke, liberty is not the freedom to do as we please. Burke believed that we could not be free unless we tamed our passions; that only a people with their emotions in check could be said to be free.

To take a more modern example, freedom does not mean the freedom to go without wearing a mask. Public health fits squarely in the realm of government, and those who defy laws written to preserve public health are not exercising their liberty, but inciting anarchy. That’s a true conservative viewpoint.

It’s difficult to see, after decades of the Republican party trying to put their stance into practice, but they are not conservatives. They’re radicals, shading into libertarians, wrapping themselves in a tradition they no longer follow.

Biden Defeats Trump

You love to see it.

Jesus, we actually fucking did it.

We’re kicking the Giant Orange Baby out of the White House.

This is an historic victory, for so many reasons.

First Black woman elected VP.

First South Asian VP.

First woman VP, period.

A record 74 million votes and counting for the winning candidate. In the midst of a global pandemic. And while the incumbent spent months casting doubt on the entire election process.

Biden’s also the most experienced President-elect we’ve had in a long time.

Obama was a one-term senator. Bush II had been a state governor, but hadn’t served in the federal government at all. Same for Clinton.

And we all know Trump hadn’t worked in government at all, not even at the level of parking attendant.

You have to go all the way back to George H.W. Bush to find a President with anything like Biden’s experience. Bush I had been VP to Reagan for eight years, and before that he’d been a Congressional Representative, the US’ Ambassador to the UN, and CIA Director.

It’s a good precedent. Bush I was a steady hand at the wheel, avoiding the quagmire in Iraq that his son would jump into feet-first, and navigating the end of the Cold War with grace.

But maybe a better parallel for Biden is even further back, nearly sixty years back, with LBJ.

Like Biden, LBJ served for decades in the US Senate before becoming VP to a younger, less experienced, but more charismatic President. And when he took office, he was seen as carrying the burden of finishing what the previous President had started. Just we look to Biden to consolidate and extend Obama’s legacy.

Thankfully, LBJ was a master at getting legislation passed, which is how a Texan ended up signing both the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act.

Biden’s going to need some of that skill to work with Congress, especially if the Republicans hold onto the Senate and McConnell decides to continue his role as Majority Roadblock.

We can only hope the parallel holds that far. Goodness knows we could use some good luck, here in the States, after four years of being cursed with the worst administration in over a hundred years.

Please Vote

The Washington Post has a comprehensive run-down of everything the Trump regime has broken over the last four years. The list is long, and it starts from the very first day of their time in office.

We need to roll it all back.

But more than that, we need to fix the broken parts of American democracy, that have allowed a minority government to stall progress and enrich themselves at the expense of the rest of us.

We need to reform the Supreme Court. Justices should have term limits. And the power the justices have arrogated to themselves of deciding the constitutionality of laws passed by Congress should be removed, and placed in a completely separate, explicitly bi-partisan, Constitutional Court.

We need to abolish the Electoral College. We elect governors and mayors directly. We should elect the President directly, too.

We need to admit both Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico as states. They deserve the full rights (and responsibilities!) of citizenship.

Finally, we need to address the balance of power between Congress and the Executive. Congress should take back powers it’s given away, like the ability to declare a state of emergency.

And it should reduce the powers of the executive branch where they have been delegated. For example, border patrol agents should have no special powers to search and seize, no matter how close to the border we are. Federal police should not be able to deploy military weapons against citizens who have peacefully assembled. And moving funds between agencies or programs (when Congress has explicitly earmarked them) should be labeled a crime, and thus an impeachable offense.

All this, in addition to specific policy shifts, like stopping the provision of military gear to police departments, ending the abuse of refugees and migrants, and rebuilding the State Department as the primary driver of foreign policy.

It’s a lot. But it’s not impossible. We can do it, but it’s going to take all of us.

So please, vote. Vote not as the end, but as the beginning, of building a better country together.

Because none of us are free, unless we are all free.

Keeping Score: September 25, 2020

I can’t believe Breonna Taylor’s killers are going to walk free.

I mean, I can believe it, in the sense that racism is real and cops are killers and they’re killers because they kill and get away with it in this country.

But it’s just…hard to grasp that after all we’ve been through, these United States, in 2020, a group of people could decide it’s just fine to charge into the home of one of their fellow citizens and murder them, so long as the murderers are wearing badges.

It’s also hard for me to wrap my head around the President of the United States saying for months that the only election he could lose is a fraudulent one, and there’s no howls of indignation from his side of the aisle. No Senators lining up to condemn his words and ask that the House open a new impeachment investigation.

Nothing. Not a fucking peep.

Meanwhile in my state, in supposedly progressive California, we still use inmates as firefighters, paying them perhaps a dollar a day, which is slave labor by any other name. And once they’ve served their time, if they happened to have been born somewhere else, we hand them over to ICE for deportation.

Oh, and there’s still a pandemic on, so walking around outside to enjoy the air newly-cleared of smoke and ash means constantly dodging people who aren’t wearing masks.

So it’s all I can do right now, when I’m not doomscrolling, to keep editing the novel. One chapter at a time.

I feel like I should be making more progress. Editing more than one chapter a day. Maybe even racing to the finish line.

Or picking up the story I was outlining a few months ago, and starting to actually put words to paper.

But I can’t.

I just…can’t.

The writing spirit is very willing, but the writing flesh, the meaty brain and hands that would summon words from the void, are quite busy right now.

So I press on, one chapter at a time. I’m not stopping, but I’m not able to move any faster right now.

Because this book’s become even more important to me, lately.

It’s about prisons. It’s about all the different kinds of people that get locked up, and why. It’s about exploitation, and greed, and how it’s all kept going by the people that look the other way. The ones that hold their noses so they can benefit.

It’s also about forgiveness, and change. About making yourself vulnerable again, after holding onto a hurt for so long.

I want to finish it. I need to finish, to have this story told. To share it.

There’s not much else I can do, so I’m doing this.

Voting. Donating. Speaking up.

And writing.

Good Economics for Hard Times, by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo

A frustrating book. One minute, it’ll be knee-deep in the blinders and false-assumptions of economics, the next it’ll flip and call out economists for being too focused on GDP and not enough on human dignity.

That kind of whiplash makes me not trust anything the authors say. They’re too inconsistent for me to be able to piece together a coherent approach or worldview for them.

Or argue with their takes. I mean, how do you approach someone who believes the B.S. that Silicon Valley has been spouting for decades about being “disruptive” (instead of the truth: they’re VC funds chasing the bubble-high returns of monopoly) but also admits that increasing automation can displace people who should be helped?

Or a team that argues that GDP should not be used to measure growth anymore — and even that growth is not that important — but also uses GDP growth in their arguments for other policies (for example, that immigration does not hurt the societies that accept immigrants)?

It’s all over the place.

If anything, this book further convinces me of the limits of current economic thinking. So many times, the authors posit a problem (“why don’t people move around more?”) that has obvious answers as soon as your take your head out of the economic sand.

I mean, so many of the things that make it hard for them to “explain” why humans act the way they do are fundamental ideas in economics that have been debunked.

Amazon isn’t profitable because of its size. Amazon was a business failure for decades, that Bezos kept afloat through his access to capital. Only in the last few years, when it’s become an illegal monopoly and so can flood the moat around its market, has Amazon turned a profit.

The authors swallow the Amazon line because they’re still beholden to the economic idea that bigger means more efficient. But anyone that’s ever worked in a large org knows that bigger organizations are less efficient than smaller ones. They just wield more economic power, and so can remain large.

And they find it hard to explain why people don’t move around more (from poorer places to wealthier ones) only because they rely on the economic model of human behavior, which posits that people always act to increase their wealth, and do so efficiently.

Which is obvious bunk to anyone who has, you know, spent time around actual people.

The authors whiff on basically every issue they address. They find it hard to calculate the costs or benefits of social media, when Facebook’s balance sheet is publicly available (proving social media is big business). They advocate for helping immigrants find their way in a new society, without pointing out that the policies they recommend — job matching, housing, child care — would benefit everyone if implemented universally, not just the displaced (and so be more politically viable).

In the end, I think they themselves sum up the book’s “insights” best:

Economics is too important to be left to economists.

Well said.