Annual Book Review!

Another year come and gone already. It hardly seems possible. As xkcd has put it, I’m somehow always surprised by the passage of time, even though it’s literally the most predictable thing in the universe.  I did pretty well on my reading this year, 54 books, which I think is respectable, what with the three small humans I have to keep alive taking up most of my time. (That 54 does not include the many times I read Dragons Love Tacos 2 or Spot Goes to the Beach). As for the writing, well, I started out strong, and then life got in the way. But the good news is it’s time for me to make New Year’s resolutions again, so this year, for real, I’ll write enough reviews to keep up with my reading habit. Below, a full list of my grown-up reading for 2018, with links to my full reviews where available. And be warned, apparently my reading list ended up being pretty depressing this year.

Mort, Terry Pratchett—Death trains an apprentice in this typically witty addition to the Discworld universe. One of my favorites in the series, and I do enjoy the Discworld Death, he’s one of my favorite characters.

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, Katherine Howe—Just a fun bit of mystery and suspense, but I really enjoyed it and it was quite well researched for a book about witches. And I liked some of the minor twists at the end. Great light read to pick up.

Meet Me in Atlantis, Mark Adams—This book is hilarious and informative and I highly recommend it. I know you think you know about the Atlantis story, but I guarantee you’ve barely scratched the surface. This is a great tour of the world and theories about Atlantis, Plato, numerology, and almost everything in between.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, John Le Carré—No one is ever going to suggest John Le Carré as a happy, feel-good read, but it sticks with a person, that’s for sure. He’s a fine writer, though, and I have a couple other books on my to be read shelf for when I start feeling too optimistic about people.

Woman in White, Wilkie Collins—I am outraged that I didn’t know about this book before. One of the earliest suspense novels, written by a contemporary of Charles Dickens, this is a fantastic book. Amazing, strong female characters, great twists and turns, and a thrill to read.

The Year of Living Biblically, A. J. Jacobs—A tale of what happens when a man decides to try to follow all the rules of the Bible—including the stuff about no mixed fabrics, never telling a lie, and being sure never to touch a menstruating woman. Very tongue in cheek but surprisingly compassionate, too. I read this while listening to the OMGWTFBIBLE podcast, and they complement each other well.

The Planets, Dava Sobel—I loved Galileo’s Daughter and Longitude, which are very readable but still standard non-fiction, well-researched scientific tales, so I wasn’t prepared for the poetry and myth in this ode to the planets. Beautiful book, though.

My Life with the Saints, James Martin, SJ—A walk through and short tale of some of Fr. Martin’s favorite saints. A great piece on the importance of saints in Catholicism, and of not too challenging but not too light spiritual reading.

Beatrice and Virgil, Yann Martel—First of all, the Holocaust is a horrific event that needs to be treated as its own thing if you’re writing about it, don’t use it as a setting to work out your own feelings on art and whatever. Secondly, we already have a book that’s “The Holocaust, but with Animals.” It’s Maus, and no one is going to top it, so don’t try.

Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith–Oh, hey, it’s the book that took me over a month and almost derailed all my reading goals. Lots of writing on laws around pasture that drag on, but still really glad I read this. It’s much more down on monopolies, the merchant class, and allowing policies to be set by the wealthy, than you’d think from the way it’s discussed today.

Guadalajara, Quim Monzó—A very strange short story collection. One or two sort of stood out to me, but for the most part I’m not sure I really got it.

Make Me an Instrument of Your Peace, Kent Nerburn—A reflection on how to live out the prayer of St. Francis, this one disappointed me. It was far more Christian self-improvement than spiritual or religious writing.

Artemis, Andy Weir—Weir’s sophomore novel. I liked this book more than a lot of the critics. It’s not nearly as good as The Martian, but it’s still a fun enough novel. He just seems to know how to write the one character, but that’s never been a problem for hard sci-fi before.

The Sixth Extinction, Elizabeth Kolbert—An accessible and detailed description of how we are destroying life on earth and making the planet’s ecosystems and atmosphere unrecognizable to most species. The way we have transformed transportation, ecosystems and climate are like nothing any species has ever seen, and we are a cataclysm on par with a meteor strike.

Encounters with the Archdruid, John McPhee—Tales of ‘archdruid’ David Brower, the first Executive Director of the Sierra Club, an an ardent protector of nature, in conversation of those who would cut up nature for parts. (Although far more even handed than my description, this is not a polemic by any means.) An excellent distillation of the debates still occurring today, and a reminder of the value of nature.

The Comedians, Graham Greene—I continue to say that Graham Greene is one of the greatest and most insightful novelists of the 20th century. This novel of idealists, con artists, and just people in search of a life in Duvalier’s Haiti was heartbreaking and beautiful.

Sourcery, Terry Pratchett—Look, there are 41 Discworld novels and a handful of short stories, they won’t all be the winners. Luckily, Pratchett on a bad day is still better than most, so it’ll keep you entertained.

First Among Sequels, Jasper Fforde—I thought this was the weakest of the Thursday Next books, but you sort of have to read it to get to the other books in the series. And the last two are definitely worth it.

Telegraph Avenue, Michael Chabon—I’m consistently impressed by the intricate worlds Chabon can weave. This book is in our reality, not a slightly-mystical one like Kavalier and Clay or Yiddish Policeman’s Union, but the contained universe of one neighborhood is still incredibly detailed and well realized.

The Banquet in Blitva, Miroslav Krleža—The first two novels of a trilogy by a Croatian author, set in a fictional Balkan country. The trilogy was interrupted by World War I, so definitely a strange and unique set of political circumstances. A satire of a revolutionary hero now become an authoritarian leader, the content was fine but the writing a bit stilted. I don’t know if that’s the original or the translation.

Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Roll Back Global Warming, Paul Hawken—This is an incredibly interesting run down of all the possible ways to not only eliminate carbon emissions, but also pull it from the atmosphere, based only on things that are technically feasible today. It almost makes one feel hopeful. You can look at the solutions and their ratings on the website as well.

Wyrd Sisters, Terry Pratchett—Pratchett’s back in full form with the Witches, and a parody of Hamlet.  Really fun read that also plays around with a ton of tropes in a creative way.

Václav Havel: Or Living in Truth, Václav Havel—This collection of essays by Havel was surprisingly readable, and a shot in the arm for those of us struggling to fight for democracy in this time. I ended up highlighting almost every line to quote.

One of Our Thursdays Is Missing, Jasper Fforde—Almost entirely in BookWorld, another fun entry in the Thursday Next series. Real world Thursday hasn’t been seen in ages, and BookWorld series needs to find her. If you like the others—and if you’ve read anything I’ve ever written about books, you really should have picked up a Fforde novel or two—you’ll love those one.

Pyramids, Terry Pratchett—An introduction to the Discworld desert kingdom of Djelibeybi, the tale of tearing open doorways between dimensions, people fulfilling their destinies and the intelligence of camels (they’re sort of the dolphins or mice of Discworld) was another excellent entry in the series.

A Conspiracy of Paper, David Liss—I know a mystery centered around the financial intrigues of the East India Trading Company with long explanations of the way the stock market was first started and trading laws in early 1800s Britain doesn’t sound interesting, but it really was.

A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan—My second time reading this book, and I’m once again blown away by it. Egan is a brilliant writer, and there’s so much here that is completely new and could be so gimmicky if handled by a lesser writer, but is just a revelation to read here.

The Woman Who Died a Lot, Jasper Fforde—The final installment of the Thursday Next series, leaving me with naught to do but sit around waiting for the next in the Shades of Grey series. While never losing Fforde’s wit and humor, this seemed to be the one dealing the most with actual issues such as our perception of reality and what makes us ourselves. This, Something Rotten, and the first one, The Eyre Affair, are probably tied for my favorites.

Brave Companions, David McCullough—I’m not generally the biggest fan of McCullough, but this collection of short essays on remarkable people really pulled me in. It covers still-famous people like Charles Lindbergh, formerly famous people like Alexander von Humboldt, and people we should know more about, like Appalachian activist David Plowden. It was wide ranging and incredibly interesting.

The Men Who Stare at Goats, Jon Ronson—I’m still not entirely sure what to think of this book. It’s about the MK Ultra projects, and how they transformed into psychological warfare techniques that were seen in the war on terror and in Iraq. I never quite grasped the tone, which was half incredulous and bemused and half incredibly serious and didn’t seem to be sure itself where it was going.

Inherent Vice, Thomas Pynchon—Probably time to admit that Pynchon just isn’t for me. This odd take on a noir in a surfing town in California at the tale end of the sixties should have been my jam, but I never got into it.

His Family, Ernest Poole—The first ever Pulitzer Prize winner, this was a very satisfying book. It took a bit to get into, but it was an eye-opening take on life as World War I was opening and its impact. And I don’t know when I’ve last read a woman character I could so identify with.

Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism?, Robert Kuttner— Spoiler alert: No. And Kuttner really dives into the details of why, and why it doesn’t have to be this way. He soft pedals tribalism and racism, but his critiques or capitalism and in depth analysis of how obscure financial rules hamstring democracy make it still highly worth reading. A good companion book to The Shock Doctrine.

Less, Andrew Sean Greer—Decently well-off middle aged American men and their sorrows aren’t exactly my thing, but this was self-aware enough and well written enough that it completely won me over.

American Canopy: Trees, Forests and the Making of a Nation, Eric Rutkow—I don’t think the author did enough with the central conceit—a history of the US told through trees—to make it feel that the thesis of the book really held up, but still an interesting retrospective on the use of forests, conservation and preservation in the country.

Guards! Guards!, Terry Pratchett—A cynical, power hungry politician tries to manipulate ignorant, aggrieved citizens and then can’t handle what he’s unleashed. No, this isn’t at all relevant for today’s world, why do you ask?

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson—An insanely creepy book. If I had to give a master class on setting a tone with nothing even happening I would assign my students the first chapters of this and of Something Wicked This Way Comes.

The Elegant Universe, Brian Greene—My second time reading this book. As with Fabric of the Cosmos I’m struck that the more I read about string theory and quantum physics the less sense any of it makes. Why is everyone so sure that all the extra dimensions would be space ones, and that strings can’t be wrapped around extra time dimensions? How can a lack of our observation mean that a particle isn’t interacting with anything? And wait, there may be giant strings that haven’t collapsed on themselves floating around? How would we even identify that? Great, now my head hurts again.

The Idiot, Elif Batuman—Not sure why this was a critically acclaimed book. It centers around e-mail, and yet I’m reading about the correspondence instead of what the e-mail correspondence actually says. And I don’t know how characters in a book can have no chemistry, but these people have no chemistry.

Eric, Terry Pratchett—Sometimes you write yourself into a corner and trap your main character in the dungeon dimensions and have to dash off a 100 page novella to explain how he got out. I think we can all identify with that.

The Island of the Day Before, Umberto Eco—I always love Eco, although this is one of the harder books, I think. An exploration of reality, memory and time as someone searches for longitude, and the point of the meridian where today becomes yesterday.

The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Stories, H.P. Lovecraft–Delightfully creepy, and an origin story for so many horror, fantasy, and even sci-fi books today. Basically, if it includes an ancient and unknowable power in a time before comprehension, it owes a debt to Lovecraft.

Travels in Alaska, John Muir—Some of the original travel and nature writing, as Muir explores glaciers and visits much an at-the-time unexplored territory. Filled with an obvious love of place and of wilderness.

In the Distance, Hernan Diaz—This was a finalist for the Pulitzer in 2018, and it absolutely should have one. Beautifully written challenging book of a Swedish immigrant boy stranded in San Francisco and trying to find a brother in New York, but that doesn’t even describe it. You just have to read it and lose yourself in his descriptions and language and the surreal nature of this book.

The Three-Body Problem, Ciuxin Liu—I spent two nights being up until 1:00am with my nose in the book trying to finish it that night because it was so good I couldn’t put it down. It deals with contact with an alien civilization and spans the cultural revolution to modern day China. One of the best books I read this year.

The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson—I went on a bit of a horror kick this year. The original haunted house story, and it has held up for a reason. Do yourself a favor and just try to read the opening paragraph without shuddering.

Why Should the Devil Get All the Good Music?, Gregory Alan Thornbury—The topic—Larry Norman, the grandfather of Christian rock, an artist, someone who grappled with his place, and what his religion and art had become—is fascinating. The book was uneven. It glossed over and elided too much and offered more speculation than I’d like. But I’d warrant this is a topic most people aren’t familiar with, and it would be of interest for the rock history, and the early Evangelical movement that has outsize influence today.

Moving Pictures, Terry Pratchett—The mythical old Gods, or something like Gods, of Holy Wood will demand your attention and sacrifice! With all the good and bad that may include. Not many of the familiar Discworld characters, but definitely the familiar Discworld style.

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup, John Carreyrou—Easily one of the most interesting books I read all year. An amazing history of Theranos, a ‘unicorn’ valued at over $1 billion, that had suckered prominent investors, and with no product at all. Everything wrong with Silicon Valley, current capitalism, and a cult like company.

The Dark Forest, Ciuxin Liu—The sequel to The Three-Body Problem this book was a bit harder to follow, and it took us into the far future as we are making actual, physical contact with an alien civilization and struggling towards survival. The plot didn’t make as much sense to me, there was definitely more of just going with the flow. But much to think about and I wish the third book was off hold at the library already.

Hocus Pocus, Kurt Vonnegut—World War II, the last arguably good war, made Vonnegut an incurable cynic. You can imagine what watching Vietnam did to him. This is late period Vonnegut, and it was strange to read such familiar phrases and writing but in the late 90s instead of the 60s.

Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, Anand Giridharadas—Another one of the best books I read all year, this one take on our social impact investing and culture of corporate philanthropy that don’t challenge systems. How much good can one really be doing if you only look for ways to profit and don’t consider any sacrifice? How can we laud corporations who are fighting paying taxes with one hand and then giving pennies to schools on the other? Should ‘first do no harm’ mean more than sharing ill-gotten largesse? From someone who lived in the social consulting/corporate philanthropy world, there are many important questions for us to consider here.

Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson—This book is like is like Adbusters, Ghost in the Shell, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, and those anarcho-punk kids you met at Warped had a crazy dystopian baby. But, like, in a good way.

The Fifth Season, N.K. Jemisin—Jemisin won the Hugo Award three years in a row for this trilogy, the first person ever to do so, and I can understand why. She is powerful writer. A story of enslaved power and community and loss and sorrow and the end of the world. Another of the best books I read this year and I cannot wait to read the rest of this series.

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Snow Crash

snowcrash1Snow Crash, Neil Stephenson

This cyberpunk cult classic seems to divide people pretty starkly, as cult classics often do, so let me start by acknowledging that there are many places where I agree with the book’s  critics: the book is too long, the characters’ actions don’t always make sense, it devolves to stereotypes too often, and the plot doesn’t completely hold together. Here is where I depart from the critics: none of that matters, because this book is still a whole hell of a lot of fun.

Snow Crash grabbed me from its opening scene, which had a genuine twist I won’t give away, introducing its main character, Hiro Protagonist, and soon-to-be partner in adventure, Y.T., a 15-year-old courier. Sorry, Kourier, in this world. And let me say—I enjoyed this book enough to completely overlook Hiro’s name after a few chapters, although I definitely had to push my way through that.

Hiro is a freelance hacker in an unspecified future and one of the people who helped create the Metaverse, which can probably most be compared to Second Life. Snow Crash was written in 1992, and it’s amazing to read him explaining how the Metaverse works, and that Hiro is walking around and talking to these people who aren’t really there, but they can interact in this futuristic Metaverse world. The appear in the Metaverse as their avatars, images they’ve decided on to represent themselves. I know you know what an avatar is, but it was still to fun to read Stephenson’s descriptions. Hiro visits an exclusive club, The Black Sun, where he sees an old girlfriend who indicates she’s involved in something big, and his good friend and former employer Da5id, also one of the Metaverse creators and a big deal here. Da5id and Hiro have both been offered Snow Crash by a large avatar outside the venue, and while Hiro refuses, Da5id decides to give it a try, assuming it’s a new drug. It is, in a sense, and ends up not only crashing his avatar but crashing his brain (his main operating system, as it will end up being referred to) in real life.

And from there we’re off to the races, although the book does get a bit draggy and far too expositional in certain points. We end up with a Human Weapon, Raven, who is trying to distribute Snow Crash to destroy American society, a crazy global and perhaps ever so slightly interstellar conspiracy, boat chases, the Mob, ancient Sumerian myths and Gods, and commentary on World War II and Vietnam – two events which make the placing of this event in time far more difficult, and almost suggestive of just-off-to-the-side parallel world rather than a futuristic one.

The book can get a bit disjointed and throws a lot at the reader all at once in many places. Some of the infodumps where you’re gathering what the whole major conspiracy is are just paragraphs and paragraphs of a Metaverse character explaining things, which can be a bit hard to follow. Especially as the aforementioned Sumerian myths play a major role, and it’s not as if most of us have existing knowledge of ancient Sumer we can fall back on if we get lost. One part of the disjointedness, though, that I really appreciated in the book were the small asides, which could almost function as their own short stories. The opening scene works that way, as does a chapter on Y.T’s mom and her terrible job in a government bureaucracy, and a bit on a cyborg dog called a Rat Thing. The bits and pieces that went into the side characters and world building were some of my favorite parts of the book, and I think Stephenson could probably excel at short stories.

Snow Crash operates in a weird place, feeling both incredibly prescient and incredibly of 1992 at the same time. There were parts of the descriptions of the Metaverse, internet stand ins, and a massive library that was just information collected and uploaded by others, that honestly made me go back and double check when the book was written, as it seemed like it should have been late nineties at least. And the vignette about Y.T.s mom was a great piece on efficiency taken to an insane level, with enforced hot desking and constant monitoring.

And then there are ample signs that it was written in the early nineties. Like the fact that skateboarding is incredibly important.  Y.T. is a Kourier, meaning a skateboard delivery person, a group that plays a very distinct rebellious and essential role in this world. And then there’s the world they live in. While we have plenty of corporation problems here, the world in Snow Crash has a particularly nineties-dystopia vibe, from back before we’d entirely given up and people were still worried about what the fall of US manufacturing and small businesses would do to us. The US government is all but expired, corporations have taken on most of the roles, such as building roads and providing security and jails. Most people who can afford to live in Burbclaves, semiautonomous neighborhood/cities that people require citizenship or permission to enter. Many of the Burbclaves are explicitly segregated. Everything, from the Burbclaves to the rented out jails and security people, are franchises of major corporations. The primary religious group is a corporate franchise as well, Reverend Wayne’s Pearly Gates.  Oh, and everyone has a bar code on them to prove their citizenship or permission to enter different Burbclaves and franchises, just as we were all sure would be required of us soon enough. It’s hard to explain how the texture and the tone were so evocative of the nineties rather that something written today, but it really was. It felt far more like the anti-globalization and Adbusters campaigns I grew up on than the Occupy Wall Street flavor of today, even though those are all of a piece. But as that is what I grew up on, the dystopia it presented was oddly nostalgic and comforting to me.

Snow Crash is not a perfect book. The plot, which I only vaguely got into here, doesn’t 100% hold together, and so it’s best not to think about it too much at the end. But it’s a wild ride while on the way, and I can definitely understand why it’s developed such a following. Stephenson is an uneven writer, but I loved him when he was on. The story itself is gripping and engaging along the way, a really fun journey down early cyber punk. If you let yourself just get swept along, it’s a great adventure you can really enjoy.

Bad Blood

bad bloodBad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Start Up, John Carreyrou

What a surprisingly appropriate follow up to Going Clear. Bad Blood, the story of Theranos and its founder, Elizabeth Holmes, is a fascinating tale of hubris, charisma, failure of the elites of our society, and a microcosm of many of the issues with Silicon Valley and our economic culture today.

For those unfamiliar with the tale, Theranos was a company more or less willed into existence by a ruthless, clever, and extraordinarily charismatic woman, Elizabeth Holmes. At nineteen Holmes dropped out of Stanford to found a medical device company, one that could conduct tests through a patch on one’s skin and relay that information to doctors. With the support and encouragement of an associate dean at the college, and parlaying family and Stanford connections, she built a board and gathered funders, but quickly tossed the idea for another: the dream of a pinprick medical test that could conduct hundreds of tests with milliliters of blood and, in the future, even conduct early detection tests not even possible with current blood testing technology. Eventually, through selling this dream, her story as a brilliant Silicon Valley disrupter, and, to put it bluntly, a willingness to tell complete lies to someone’s face and ruthlessly attack anyone who questioned her, she built a company worth, on paper, over a billion dollars.

The dream of pinprick blood test sounds wonderful, which is why many research institutions have been working on such a thing for decades. But they are routinely stymied by the need to have enough blood for tests, that different tests may end up changing the blood in certain ways, by the fact that blood can dry out quickly if it is in small quantities, and other challenges. However, through playing on the dream of Silicon Valley, Holmes was able to convince many that she, with no medical training and only a year of engineering training, could address these issues. She raised money with fake prospectuses, convinced Walgreens and Safeway to spend billions on contracts with them, and aggressively went after anyone who questioned her. Employees had to sign NDAs and were tracked by private investigators when they began talking to John Carreyrou, the Wall Street Journal journalist who first exposed the company and wrote Bad Blood. Doctors and patients who had received faulty information from Theranos’ tests were threatened. Anyone on the board who spoke up was removed. And despite the many people who questioned this, most of whom were silenced over the years, she kept this con going for well over a decade.

The story truly does mimic that of a cult leader. Employees were routinely told that this should be their religion, that anyone who was not 100% committed should leave. Hours were tracked constantly, and people expected to be at work throughout the evening and in the weekends in order to prove their devotion. And while the silver lining, I suppose, is that actual medical companies didn’t seem to be taken in, many other leaders who shouldn’t have been so willing to buy into something uncritically were. George Schultz, an elder statesman who has served in four different cabinet positions, and now Defense Secretary James Mattis were fully on board, despite people they knew and trusted bringing forth questions. Schultz even chose to trust Holmes over his own grandson, Tyler Schultz, who became one of the more important whistleblowers. Financers and investors bought in with no proof. Safeway and Walgreens were fully committed to the end, even when Walgreens’ advisor was refused access to the labs or to see a functioning test.* Because people were afraid of missing out, and, more importantly, seemed to be enamored of and trust Elizabeth Holmes. One person described her as creating her own personal ‘reality distortion field.’ And, what is most amazing, is that in what seemed to be a truly hellish work environment, with employees who clearly knew this product wasn’t working, people stayed. People stayed and were committed. And some stayed who weren’t! Despite the abuse, and threats, and their own doubts about what they were doing. Again, many, many people need to watch Labyrinth.

The biggest question, and what will never be answered, is how much of this Holmes herself bought into. It is the case that in the world of other technology and apps and startups, one can begin with many bugs and without a fully functional product—think of how many patches you download with any new system. But there is a much different standard when the worst problem is the maps app crashing regularly and with a test incorrectly saying whether or not one has HIV. And it is also the fact that this product was not just buggy, it straight up wasn’t working. And yet tests were given, results were sent. Investors were sent pretend test results and financial reports of completely fake numbers. One expects that Holmes thought she would fake it until things were working, but also… they were just not working.

The thought of reading through a failed business and faked financial reports might not sound compelling, but this truly is one of the most fascinating stories of our time. And, as I said above, an excellent example of so much of what is wrong with our economy today. The number of elites, of ‘brilliant’ people, who were completely suckered into this is staggering. Political leaders in all parties bought in! The fact that this fraud was perpetuated for as long as it is, and enabled by so many, is amazing. The delusion and lies that exist, the lack of regulation, the amount of success one can sustain through bald faced lying, bullying and aggression, is terrifying. For anyone wondering just what is going wrong today, you could do worse than starting with this book. And even if you’re not looking for a larger message, it’s a darn good read.

 

*Oddly enough, just about the only person who makes it through the tale with integrity and intelligence intact is Rupert Murdoch. A major investor in Theranos, apparently Holmes tried to get him to kill the initial story that led to the company’s unraveling. But he refused because, as I read elsewhere, whatever other faults he has, he knows a good story when he smells one.^

^Also probably because Rupert Murdoch is worth at least US$13 billion. An investment of a few hundred million dollars is just playing around money.

Guards! Guards!

guards guardsGuards!Guards!, Terry Pratchett

After a few books that took us to far off Djelibeybi (Pyramids)   and the rural kingdom of Lancre (Wyrd Sisters), we’re back to the big, familiar city of Ankh-Morpork with Guard! Guards! Fleshing out the politics and society of Discworld further, Guards! Guards! is set in the Discworld’s largest city following the adventures of the night watch. Ankh-Morpork is a city that works primarily through taking cynicism to astonishing levels. The Patrician (the city’s ruler) realized that things would never really be perfect, and decided to really lean into that, with the Thieves Guild, Assassins Guild and others using the natural need for monopoly control to keep crime to mostly manageable levels, giving the night watch very little to do on the crime-fighting front. As one might expect, though, circumstances intervene to make the night watch into our unlikely heroes. I suppose it sounds boring and predictable when written that way, but this being Pratchett, the standard story is twisted, turned about, and pushed and pulled into all sorts of absurd directions.

As for the circumstances. Well. I don’t usually read Terry Pratchett for my political commentary, especially as I’ve been reading books written twenty or so years ago. But the most recent Discworld novel I read, Guards! Guards! was weirdly timely.

Early in the book, we’re introduced into a conniving, power-hungry leader who has assembled a group of not particularly intelligent or well-regarded, but very embittered and put-upon feeling group of men he thinks he can control. He plans to use this group to achieve his power over the city, and thinks he can disregard, or at least control, them and the forces they’ve unleashed after he is done with them.

Unsurprisingly, things don’t go as planned, and the city ends up crowning a dragon king. People who had previously been firmly against this and in the #NeverDragon camp quickly go along with the plan, and become excited about the idea of Ankh-Morpork gaining power against the other kingdoms, revenge against others who may be cheating them in trade, and getting the respect they deserve. The leaders of the city, it’s many guilds and businesses and power structures, are, of course, against most of this, especially being led by a dragon, but what can one do? In fact, one paragraph of a meeting of these leaders is, I imagine, a rather perfect description of most of Trump’s cabinet meetings.

They avoided one another’s faces, for fear of what they might see mirrored there. Each man thought one of the others is bound to say something soon, some protest, and then I’ll murmur agreement, not actually say anything, I’m not as stupid as that, but definitely murmur very firmly, so that the others will be in no doubt that I thoroughly disapprove, because at a time like this it behooves all decent meant to nearly stand up and be almost heard…

But no one said anything. The cowards, each man thought.

Honestly, this book is almost a pitch-perfect satire of our current system. Forget authoritarian dystopias like 1984 or serious works of political theory like How Democracies Die. Pratchett and his cynical view of human nature is who you should be reading to understand how we got to where we are today.

Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism

can democracy surive global capitalismCan Democracy Survive Global Capitalism?, Robert Kuttner

(Spoiler Alert: No)

In many ways 9/11 and the Iraq War, what almost seemed the defining points of a generation politically, were an aberration, an interruption in the real fight that needed to take place, the fight around globalization. When I was first becoming politically active in the late 90s and 2000-2001, this was it. This is what we were focused on. The ways the financial system had ravaged labor around the world. The ways IMF undermined global sovereignty. Jubilee and the debt relief movement. The Battle in Seattle. This was a major rift that needed to be addressed, a wider battle that needed to happen, the real fission line at the time between the left and the centrists.

Then 9/11 happened, and Afghanistan, and Iraq, and torture, and the fault lines shifted, and these differences were swept under the rug so that we could turn to other fights. There were some who tried to point out that this return to fundamentalism in some regions wasn’t a separate issue, but one of the points where the fight over globalization was playing out. Jihad vs. McWorld—a book I and my co-combatants on the globalization lines had read and reread—enjoyed a brief surge of popularity. But mostly the way that economic policy rather than foreign policy had contributed to the growth in fundamentalism and the current state of affairs was lost in the ensuing discussions.

Much to our detriment, as we readily see now, though, our society’s inability to stay focused on one big problem at a time doesn’t mean that the other issue goes away. And the steady creep of the growth of globalization—partly trade, yes, but even more, finances, investors, and currency speculation—and increase in binding arbitration that limits a state’s sovereignty and ability to course correct through its own policies has continued apace even while our attention was turned elsewhere, leading both to the collapse in 2008 and the rise in right-wing populism we see now.

The growing inequality is a well-known story, or at least it should be. We are in the midst of a roaring economic recovery where wages have stayed primarily stagnant.  The country mobilized to save companies and banks, whose CEOs were still allowed to have private jets and massive retirement funds, while the workers saw layoffs and pensions being cut over and over. Recent Oxfam stories have shown that the richest 1% took 82% of global wealth in 2017, while the bottom 50% had nothing. And the world’s richest people have the same wealth as the poorest 50%. Kuttner lays out in painstaking detail how global capitalism, and, even more importantly, an almost complete lifting of constraints on global banking, finance, and other industries who produce nothing other than wealth and paper money, the rentier class, will inevitably lead to this sort of massive inequality, which will lead to dissatisfaction and anger that can turn towards populists, fascists, racists, and others who promise easy solutions and someone to blame. Even more interesting, though, he also explains that it doesn’t have to be this way, outlining the initial efforts after the Great Depression and World War II that constrained finance, empowered labor, and made a strong economy, strong wages, and high employment, an explicit policy goal, leading to a global boom.

Kuttner’s basic thesis is two-fold. One, which I think many left-leaning people would generally agree with, at least in sentiment, is that labor rights should be strengthened, and we should support workers’ rights and human rights around the world. By strengthening labor, and civil society in general, we will have more people engaged in these fights, and people will protect their own interests. Where his theory is likely more controversial is that one of the things labor and civil society must fight for is significant constraints upon capital and the rentier class. He outlines the haven of tax shelters and shell companies that have been developed that provide no benefit except protecting and increasing paper wealth. He shows how the WTO and others do significantly restrain sovereignty in protecting labor rights and raising taxes, but provide no enforceable protections around labor or human rights. Even more troubling, currency speculation allows financers to move their money rapidly, and bankrupt any country that tries to enact leftist policies, thus significantly restricting the possibility of left governments to make changes, making them ineffective and desperate people even more susceptible to arguments that this can be blamed on the powerless—immigrants, racial minority, LGBTQ rights and women—rather than the powerful who others have railed against to no avail. Kuttner sees the growth of these policies as inevitable if finance is not significantly constrained. He seems to agree largely with Adam Smith, who wrote, in Wealth of Nations, “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment or diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.”

Kuttner’s book is incredibly well-researched and informative, and provides a wealth of examples from Asia, North America and Europe regarding the success  of the post-WWII system, and the strong labor practices in northern Europe, as well as some of the protectionist policies in East Asia in the 90s,  as compared to the “free trade” policies of globalization and the growing inequality and pain for consumers and workers that has resulted from financial globalization. He also draws a bright line between this failure of government to be responsive to a rise of ‘illiberal democracies’, popular movements that seem to mirror fascism. It is a troubling, but very convincing, read.

The book has some missteps. Kuttner is focused on the economics and the policies, an area that are too often overlooked—when I was in the globalization battles we focused on the damage WTO, IMF and other institutions did to developing countries, Kuttner is able to update that with the restraints and attacks on sovereignty the WTO has on developed countries, and the EU forced on Greece and others. There are significant echoes of The Shock Doctrine in how many of these destructive policies were put in place during times of trouble and without much input or understanding from others. This is understandable, and it is important to focus on this less understood area. He makes a compelling plea for paying attention to these policies, and constantly emphasizing the politics—who was for popular policies such as Social Security and Medicare at the time, and who was against. It is the only way to keep people allied with progressives, by reminding them of our success.

However, I think he is too dismissive of racial issues. It is not impossible that the significant social progress and compromise of the northern European nations is because of their cultural homogeneity. Racial issues have always played a part in the rise of populism—an in-group and an easily demonized outgroup, rather than turning anger towards the powerful. And within the United States, one cannot ignore the significant impact of racial attitudes. Lyndon Johnson famously said, ” If you can convince the lowest white man that he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll even empty his pockets for you.” The New Deal was only able to pass because it enshrined certain racist protections. Kuttner waves away racial sentiment and focuses economic anger to explain hostility towards Clinton and support for Trump, but numerous studies have shown that racial sentiment and hostile misogyny are much better predictors of Trump support than economic views. I agree economic anger exacerbates in-group/out-group views such as these, and with his economic criticisms of Hillary Clinton, but one cannot just wave away this reality.

While this is a significant oversight, this is still an incredibly valuable book. The discussion over globalization, the ability to enforce austerity, the downward pressure on wages and environmental and human rights, and binding arbitration that gives unelected and private trading boards greater power than the United Nations are a danger to us all. This reckoning is long in coming, and we have to hope we’re not late to course correct. Read this book and understand these backgrounds. But don’t forget that every voter angry about this has a choice, and we can’t ignore the racism and sexism embedded in every populist leader. Anyone who talks of the pain of workers but understands their hostility to immigrants has a dangerous viewpoint embedded in their argument. We need to address these economic issues, true, but through greater solidarity not less. Non-white workers are suffering even more than others; let’s look to a way to preserve democracy, and the economy for all.

Encounters with the Archdruid

encounters with the archdruidEncounters with the Archdruid, John McPhee

For anyone engaged in the environmental movement David Brower does—or should—loom large. The first Executive Director of the Sierra Club, Brower turned it into a political powerhouse. He was responsible for stopping dams in the Grand Canyon, establishing nine national parks and seashores, and passing the Wilderness Act. More than that, he fought for a vision that is still debated, a vision of wilderness, of places that are untouched (as much as possible) by human intervention. He wanted to protect nature for its own sake.

Brower is the Archdruid of the title in McPhee’s book, from a developer’s sarcastic comment that he calls all preservationists druids. The book follows Brower and others on three expeditions—a mountain hike, an island off the Georgia coast, and down the Colorado—with people with wildly differing views. One a geologist for a mining company who thinks the only way possible for humanity is to continue to use minerals, especially copper, in great quantities and mine wherever we can, another a developer who has been pioneering beauty and nature in development and wants to build on an almost entirely uninhabited barrier island, the last the person who would be closest to Brower’s archnemesis, the Commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, who led almost every one of the dams that Brower opposed.

I don’t know quite what I expected with this book, but it wasn’t this exactly. I suppose I expected more nature writing, and less of the debates I remember from school on conservation vs. preservation. Many of the debates did seem a bit rote, with people—Brower and his foils in each section—falling back on sound bites and the same arguments many have heard before. Often, surprisingly, the developers are given more free rein to talk in the book than Brower, with him seeming to be assured in his path and offering only that he resists their arguments, and their view of humanity and what we need.

That being said, I still found the book fascinating. McPhee lets the subjects, and the natural world, speak for themselves, and doesn’t vilify the developers on the other side, so to speak. And it’s a wonderful history of environmentalism in the country, one that I would strongly recommend to anyone engaged in these debates today. As Brower argues preservation with those who say that a bit of development won’t hurt, that we can build houses but keep most of nature, build a small mine and be responsible with the tailings, flood only a small percentage of the Grand Canyon, it was hard not to think of how much more we’ve learned about ecosystems, how important it is to have large tracts undisturbed, how even a responsible developer will by necessity kick out parts of nature we don’t even know we need.

I also found that I greatly appreciated Brower’s arguments for preservation: That it’s what we should do. That we need wild places. That we need beautiful places. That we don’t need to build a dam. That our short-term gains are destroying things that took millenia to come into being. This was a criticism of Brower during his time. He

sierra club ad

A Sierra Club ad from Brower’s time.

pioneered using emotional ads to rile up environmentalists to save the west, even going so far with some to see Sierra Club lose its tax exempt status. (And while they lost that status, and were accused of being unreasonable and unfair and pushing away moderates, they went from 2000 members to 77000- nearly 2 million today- and became the leading environmental organization. Consider that the next time you read an article about a lefty group being uncivil or worried about losing moderates.)

In a day and age where we assign a cost and a benefit analysis to everything, where everything is talked about in investment, where even a question about whether or not to raise the sea levels enough that entire countries may disappear is caught up in the short-term price, reading a full-throated defense of nature for nature, a steadfast belief in intrinsic value, and a rejection of our utilitarian way of thinking refreshing. We could use far more David Browers today.

“Polite conservationists leave no mark save the scars upon the Earth that could have been prevented had they stood their ground.”
— David Brower

The Benedict Option

benedict optionThe Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, Rod Dreher

 

How can one be a faithful Christian in a world that is hostile to Christianity? That is the premise of Rod Dreher’s book, The Benedict Option, a premise which has a pretty huge assumption baked into it, as you may notice. Dreher’s answer is to withdraw into our own small faith communities, following the example of St. Benedict and the Benedictine Monasteries. He suggests we support Christian* businesses, pull our kids out of public schools immediately, and create our own culture where we’ll be as cut off as possible from the impacts of the world. He think we need to brace ourselves for further attacks on Christianity*, and see Christians* continue to have to choose between being good Americans and good Christians*, and the continuing decline. The only way to survive, according to Dreher, is to withdraw into our Benedict Communities, a sanctuary, so to speak, to protect our endangered Christianity*.

Let me say upfront that I did not dislike this book as much as I expected to! The general concept of small faith communities is one that I am wholeheartedly in support of, and I think people trying to be good, to be faithful, and to do the right thing do need to support one another. I think that our current culture looks down on community and tends to discard anything that inconveniences us, and this is a problem. And I’m sympathetic to the challenges of raising children in a culture that seems to criticize my own values. I’m a parent, and I’m trying to raise my kids Catholic, raise them to be kind and giving to others, to realize they can’t have everything because its wasteful, to not be violent, and so on and so forth. And I was raised that way as well, and it was difficult! The outside culture tries to get in, and it can’t be avoided altogether. (Mom, Dad, I’m sorry for all of the times that we snuck out to go to Dougie Olson’s place to play Mortal Kombat.) (Also, I’m still not sorry for all the times I watched MTV. I maintain that that ban was unnecessary.) In my own house, we have constant parenting discussions about how much to let the kids pretend to shoot each other, what video games and shows to watch, and on a grown up level what it’s okay for us to invest in, and how much its okay to invest instead of donate.

So I can understand where Dreher is coming from. And I am a fan of the concept of small faith communities, and living intentionally.  Building stronger lay communities is incredibly valuable and important, both to strengthen the Church and for individuals looking for spirituality, friendship, and living out their values. All that said, though, everything about the way Rod Dreher seems to approach this is off. Let us state from the beginning that Christianity, and even Christianity*, is not under threat here in the United States. No one is going to be hauled off to jail for being Christian, there are no pogroms, no one is being fed to the lions. This is not the time of the martyrs (a time that is likely overstated anyway.) There are pressures against Christianity in our society, but threats against Christians—at least in the United States—are far overstated by the Drehers and Chaputs and Grahams of the world.

Then, again, a common theme among the Drehers of the world is that there is really only the one way that Christianity* is under threat, and that’s from the legality of gay marriage. Oh, sure, he makes a couple feints towards the importance of helping people, and of standing up to racism, but these are clearly thrown in. Again and again the horrors of legalizing gay marriage, of teaching respect for transgender individuals, and otherwise going against natural law are held up as the way Christians* will be wiped out.

I don’t understand this. At all. No one is making other people get gay married. And for all the fear that is brought up about this, no one will ever say the Church has to recognize gay marriage. Right now, a religious leader can refuse to officiate the marriage of anyone for any reason—notice how divorce has been legal for a very, very, very long time, but the Catholic Church still won’t remarry someone who’s legally been divorced? There are the constant fears of how religious liberty is being attacked because there may be laws saying that business owners have to serve someone with different religious beliefs, which are being fought over right now, true. But other than that changes to our beliefs, and changes to Church teaching on sexual issues, are for the most part not being forced on us.

And even if the sexual mores of our society have diverged from Catholic teaching (which happened a while ago, really), is this the greatest threat to Christianity? They have often diverged to a certain extent, at least in practice, but we go forward saying what the ideal is and what the Church teaches, and hope that at least the people in the pews will get it right. The Church has survived several societal shifts, major cultural changes, and massive amounts of corruption within our ranks (see, for instance, everything about the Renaissance, Inquisition, etc.).

Meanwhile, nationalism is on the rise, with increased antisemitism and racism. These are sins we have fought before, but there is ample evidence they are infecting our Church, as well as other Christian communities.  And worse, there is a seeming fear of addressing racism within our Church and an absence of clergy in the fight in a way that other social issues do not suffer from. From a religious liberty perspective, there were several bills introduced over the past few years in different states, and even in the US Congress, that would have made it illegal for church workers to assist undocumented migrants in need. To its great credit, the Church has been much stronger in standing up for migrants and refugees, but it was startling to see the conservative voices calling for the religious liberty to ignore this direct affront to our Church’s mission.

A capitalist, individualist society that tells us not to help people we see in need is a danger to our Christian identity. When businesses are penalized for paying workers a living wage, how can a committed Christian treat their workers fairly? Society based on convenience, rather that responsibilities and togetherness, is a great threat to the Church (probably one of the biggest reason people don’t show up in the pews.)  Society that is soaked in violence is a threat to the Church. There are many challenges we face.

And many small groups that have risen to address them! I was surprised that “third orders” didn’t come up at all in the book, basically lay people who have still taken vows and agreed to live by a religious orders rules, since they seem ready made for this discussion. The largest of the Third Orders currently the Lay Franciscans, who are dedicated to social justice principles. There are also lay Benedictines, though, and they don’t even get a mention. I’d think he’d want to give them a boost. Catholic worker houses seem to be relevant to this discussion, but I imagine they don’t conform to his idea of Christianity*. Heck, Amish communities seem to be dedicated on pulling away from society that would damage their religion. This idea of pulling away and creating your own faith community isn’t unique, and it’s a glaring absence that Dreher doesn’t discuss them.

One a broader note, though, pulling away entirely—and I should mention that the Catholic groups above still work within society constantly, they aren’t isolated—is antithetical to what it means to be Christian. Even if I agreed with Dreher on the worst threats facing Christianity* today; even if I agreed that we were facing an existential threat; I still wouldn’t be able to condone his suggestions. Because the fact is that we are called to be part of the world, to minister, to evangelize. And most of all, throughout Catholic teaching, we are taught that we are an Advent people. We are people of hope. We are not allowed to withdraw, to only tend to ourselves, to despair of society. We must live in the world and be a public witness, and do what we can to call others to us. And doing this while holding true to our teachings is a challenge, but it is ours to live. It does not matter the difficulties we may face, we are not called to despair and withdrawal, we are called to be Salt and Light.

*Relevant only for his particular brand of socially conservative Christianity.