America: The Farewell Tour by Chris Hedges – Book

Chris Hedge’s book America: The Farewell Tour begins with a chapter entitled “Decay”:

“I walked down a long service road into the remains of an abandoned lace factory. The road was pocked with holes filled with fetid water. There were saplings and weeds poking up from the cracks in the asphalt. Wooden crates, rusty machinery, broken glass, hulks of old filing cabinets and trash covered the grounds.”

His prose is personal and relatable. He is a well-respected journalist and does not ride a desk. He goes out to meet the world and provides plenty of anecdotal backup for the points he makes. He also recognizes that anecdotes need to be backed up by overviews that offer data collected by organizations who study these issues. Everything is footnoted and properly attributed as you would expect from someone who attended Colgate and Harvard (Divinity School). He has bona fides; he knows how to do research. Other chapters include: Heroin, Work, Sadism, Hate, Gambling, Freedom. However Hedges also had a thesis in mind when he began, and so the material in this book is not scientific in that sense. If you know what you want to find in advance it can affect what you observe.

The city that is home to the abandoned lace factory is Scranton, PA which leads into the challenges faced by the city leaders who find their city on the edge of bankruptcy. His point is that the lace factory  is emblematic, “is America”, as is the city of Scranton.

Chris Hedges tells us, in his tale of American decay, that he is a socialist. He quotes Karl Marx, a Communist. He says Karl Marx knew:

“that the reigning ideologies—think corporate capitalism with its belief in deindustrialization, deregulation, privatization of public assets, austerity, slashing of social service programs, and huge reductions in government spending—were created to serve the interests of the economic elites.”

However, he adds

“The acceleration of deindustrialization by the 1970’s created a crisis that forced the ruling class to devise a new political paradigm…This paradigm, trumpeted by a compliant media shifted its focus from the common good to race, crime, and law and order. It told those undergoing profound economic and political change that their suffering stemmed not from corporate greed, but from a threat to national integrity. The old consensus that buttressed the programs of the New Deal and the welfare state was attacked as enabling criminal black youth, welfare queens, and social parasites. The parasites were to blame. This opened the door to authoritarian populism.”

Hedges believes we are “witness-[ing] the denouement of capitalism”. He goes on to paint a pretty grim picture of America, a snapshot of our less than stellar moment in time here at the beginning of the 21stcentury. Addiction destroys individuals but it also is a symptom of rot in a culture. The kinds of work and the way work in America has changed has caused a decline in worker’s pride in their work, in their prosperity, and is turning us into corporate serfs. Lots of evidence is offered for these contentions.

Sadism is real, but, thankfully does not crop up often in my little world but Hedges goes to speak with the people who provide such experiences, and with other sex workers. This information is very graphic and I confess that I sometimes had to skip the details and seek out the conclusions Hedges arrived at. We need to understand the male domination in our culture and the abuse of women and if just reading about this aspect of American culture takes you to a dark place, you can imagine what it does to women (and exploited men) who feel this is the only way they can make a living. Hate and Gambling are further signs of the decay we see all around us in America. The chapter on Freedom begins with a discussion of incarceration as a tool of the capitalist elite to control populations with the most reason to resist or revolt. Also included is the Native American movement to block tar sand pipelines in South Dakota and the use of military might against people who were peacefully protesting.

I never read Chris Hedges before except for an old article in the Christian Science Monitorbecause I believed that our politics were very different but after reading this book I think we have more in common than not. However, I cannot blame problems on “isms”. The ways we organize economies are neither inherently good nor bad. Capitalism is not bad, but capitalists certainly can be. We have seen enough of unregulated capitalism to know that it gives full scope to the greediest, meanest impulses that reside in all of us very flawed humans.

Clearly though, the same weaknesses can be found in Communism and Socialism, because the defects are in us. We know that our natures are full of paradoxes. We all have a best self and a worst self and lots of degrees in between. We can rationalize that our worst behavior is beneficial with shocking ease. Communism, which lifted up those who had been oppressed, did solve the problems of inequality for a tiny minute (everyone was poor), except the Soviet Union got hung up on issues of purity and they began to purge anyone whose ideology was not pure enough. This is a trend we are finding in America right now, without the gulags (or, are our prisons our gulags).

This is where I differ from Mr. Hedges. I don’t think simply switching to socialism will magically save our democracy from decay and ruin. I do agree that what we have in America right now is nothing like the democracy/republic our forefathers foresaw.

“Our capitalist elites have used propaganda, money, and the marginalizing of their critics to erase the first three of philosopher John Locke’s elements of the perfect state: liberty, equality, and freedom.”…”Liberty and freedom in the corporate state mean the liberty and freedom of corporations and the rich to exploit and pillage without government interference or regulatory oversight.”

Hedges finds Republicans and Democrats equally guilty of turning America into a corporate state. I see the Democrats as more likely to feel some shame about this, and I also think that Democrats have not had many opportunities to introduce meaningful reforms because their power has been limited by a pretty successful Republican power grab. Hedges has some recommendations for strategies that we the people can employ to wrest back power from the corporations and the elite but he admits it will not be easy.

“All of the movements that opened up the democratic space in America—the abolitionists, the suffragists, the labor movement, the communists, the socialists, the anarchists, and the civil rights movement—developed a critical mass that forced the centers of power to respond. The platitudes about justice, equality, and democracy are just that. Only when ruling elites become worried about survival do they react. Appealing to the better nature of the powerful is useless. They don’t have one.”

I can agree with many of the progressive policies that Hedges supports although I do not call these programs socialist. The elites label these ideas as socialist to stigmatize them.

“…mechanisms that could ameliorate this crisis—affordable housing; well-paying jobs; safe, well-staffed, and well-funded schools and colleges that do not charge tuition; expanded mental health facilities; good public transportation; the rebuilding of the nation’s infrastructure; demilitarized police forces; universal government-funded health care; an end to predatory loans and practices of big banks; and a campaign to pay reparations to African Americans and end racial segregation.”

In a democracy we the people are meant to determine how our tax dollars are divvied up. If we want the federal government to manage utilities because it is fairer and more convenient and offers greater equality of access, then that is a democratic decision to use a socialist strategy for economic reasons. In other areas we might find that regulated capitalism works best, or it might make sense to make room for communal arrangements, or to even employ bartering if that suits the situation.

It is impossible to cover all that is in this book in a short commentary, but it is a deep dive into the maladies affecting America, which the Trump presidency did not cause, although the transparent looting of America by the Trump family and friends makes the direction we are headed much easier to predict. In America: The Farewell Tour, Chris Hedges focuses on capitalism as the real culprit in the decline of the quality most of us find in our lives in modern America and it is not just about money, but much, much more. This one is well worth reading and you should not let political prejudices stop you.

Fear by Bob Woodward – Book

Bob Woodward (of Watergate fame) recently published his exposé of the chaos in the early days of the Trump White House called simply, Fear: Trump in the White House.If you have been paying attention to the news (not Fox) then what you are reading in this book is hardly surprising. You see Steve Bannon come and go. The James Comey drama is in there. You see the contributions of people who played a role in those early days but are now gone, like Hope Hicks and Rob Porter. Tillerson and Trump disagree about foreign policy and Tillerson is replaced by Pompeo. Some of Trump’s fears about the Mueller investigation are covered.

There was a recent article in the NYT’s written by an anonymous source who told us that Trump’s West Wing staff are so worried about Trump’s orders telling them to design documents that will solidify bad policies, orders to place those documents on his desk to be signed, that they delay producing the papers and even remove the documents if they appear on Trump’s desk. They know that Trump’s mind jumps around from one idea to the next and that if the policy document is not placed in front of him he will forget about it (for a while). This is all covered in Woodward’s book. Woodward was there so it helps us feel like we are actually in the Oval Office, flies on the wall, experiencing staff fears in real time.

One of the greatest of all the fears is the one that shows us that someone who formed his policy ideas in some earlier decade, someone as inflexible as Trump, someone unwilling to learn about in-depth intelligence and to apply it to his fondly-held theories, someone unwilling to evolve, to revise old dogma, to encompass new data controls the nuclear codes. People in former administrations did not lightly make nuclear threats in hopes that going nuclear will turn enemies into friends. We don’t usually brag that our nuclear capabilities are greater than those of our enemies although we believe that it is basically understood. Nuclear boasting might backfire and the consequences could be devastating. Sometimes threatening documents, once produced, were removed from presidential proximity before he could sign them, but the fear that surrounds any casual treatment of nuclear weapons is always there.

Bob Woodward is not just making us aware that Trump’s staff lives in fear of Trump inadequacies and belligerent nature; he is telling us that we need to be fearful of a man who is filling a position he does not understand. We need to know that he is running America on ego, calcified opinions, and praise elicited by implied threats (fear). We need to follow Bob Woodward into those rooms in our nation’s White House and watch the slapdash way that business is now conducted daily in America. His account is very readable and the actual meat of the book ends well before the pages do. What follows is a section of photos, some pretty useful end notes, and a detailed index. If you have been paying attention to an in-depth news station like MSNBC it will all be very familiar. What will be different is that this time you are “in the room where it happens”.

The children in this Rainbow Room video offer revealing and very brief reviews of Bob Woodward’s book, reviews that sum things up very well.

https://mashable.com/video/stephen-colbert-reading-rainbow-woodward-trump/#FGlobArRcZqb

Photo Credit: From a Google Image Search – Washington Times

Democracy Betrayed by William W Keller – Book

“Western leaders appear to have lost their compass. They have delegated the safety of the nation to a newly empowered class of internal security and intelligence professionals,” says William W. Keller in his book Democracy Betrayed: The Rise of the Surveillance Security State.

Life is full of trade-offs. We trade off free time or family time for money by going off to jobs that sometimes feel rewarding and sometimes just feel boring. Keller asks us how much freedom we are willing to give up for security, not even real security, but, for the most part, false security. The part of our freedom we pay with for this false sense of security is a loss of our privacy. We have not lost enough privacy that we live in a police state – yet. But we have lost control of our private data and not just to hackers but to our own National Security apparatus, which has grown enormously since 9/11. Our government now uses (as Edward Snowden made us aware) a giant sieve to catch a few tadpoles. Often it is not even necessary to get a court order to collect whatever the government wishes to see.

The author calls this “Secure Democracy”, which he tries to prove to us, is not really democracy at all. The new name states have invented for this is “illiberal democracy” which sounds an awful lot like Orwellian double speak.

The book is academic, with plenty of documented research, carefully noted in the end notes. However, the author does not bury his points in academic language. It’s very readable, although it may not keep you on the edge of your seat. But it really should keep our adrenalin pumping. Every modern President has done little to curtail foreign surveillance in the hopes of learning in advance about terrorist attacks. Even though data shows that very little useful intelligence has come from massive data collection, the spy apparatus grows. Perhaps the assumption is that we are just not collecting enough data and more will be the ticket into the minds of bad actors. Perhaps the security people are just getting a little giddy on ones and zeroes.

And it is not just foreign data collection. Domestic spying and data collection shows the same acceleration. I don’t believe, and neither does the author, that we know how to stop the secret intelligence “state” from growing. But we do know that a democratic government with an insatiable appetite for data about its citizens is an anomaly. A government that wants to scoop up data without a specific purpose or a court order should have our mental alarms going off like crazy. It seems that even a few terrorist events make us feel very vulnerable and afraid so we acquiesce to the surveillance state, something we were determined never to do. Keller’s evidence about the scope and reach of our surveillance state is compelling.

I always tell myself that someone would be bored to death tracking my communications and my online activities, but I do keep a blog about politics. It’s a fairly easy leap, especially right now, to imagine someone knocking at my door and frog-marching me off to jail. It is fairly easy to imagine being incarcerated without due process. This has not happened but it is only a baby step away, it seems, in a 21st century when we expected to enjoy more freedom, more global freedom, than ever.

Keller calls our current surveillance state the Security Industrial Complex. The internet, which makes the world seem so small, also makes itself a tempting target for a surveillance state eager to mine all that data. Why should businesses get to use the data and not the government?

Now that the intelligence community seems to have gone rogue we are surprisingly complacent about it. Keller does not offer much advice about how to keep our government out of our business, or how to protect our constitutional right to privacy (4th Amendment) but he knows that knowledge is power. I know, I know, who wants to read about something like this. What a downer. However, this is a book that everyone should read, downer or not.

Grant by Ron Chernow – Book

 

Grant by Ron Chernow is not a book; it is tome. He writes a very contemporary biography of Ulysses S. Grant, perhaps unclouded by the political passions and machinations of the 19th century. We often hear more that is negative about Grant than what was positive. We hear he was often drunk, that he headed one of the most corrupt governments in our history, that he was a gullible and simple man, without social graces or persuasive public speaking abilities. Writers in the past accepted, for the most part, that Grant had strong military successes, but opinions of his abilities range from a lazy leader to a military savant (which Chernow feels is much closer to the truth).

Prior to the Civil War, America was experiencing a time of great divisiveness (perhaps even worse that what we are seeing in the 21st century). Slavery and state’s rights were the issues that most passionately divided the nation (and they still are 151 years later). Strong abolitionist movements in the northern states enraged the South whose lifestyle and economy revolved around slave labor. The South claimed that the Federal government had no right to make laws in this matter. The verbal battles were bitter and the differences irreconcilable. Whatever you may feel is the reason for the Civil War (the GOP still cites the state’s rights issue; while Dems tend to cite the issue of keeping human beings as slaves), Grant evolved on the issue of slavery until he came to believe that it was an anathema and absolutely the point of the war. The Union considered the South to be traitors who wanted to dissolve the Republic. Although it may drive you crazy, you need to remember that in the 19th century Southerners were the Democrats and the abolitionists were Republicans.

Chernow does not sidestep graphic descriptions of the terrible tragedy of human destruction left in the wake of every victory and every defeat in the brutal Civil War. Grant, who seemed unable to be a successful businessman, proved to have a genius for warfare, a focus that seemed to appear only when battle loomed, and a broad and long view of the overall geography, scope, and strategy involved in any given battle. Since Grant was educated at West Point, he knew many of the officers on both sides in the Civil War and he had personal insight into how they would behave. Try not to read about these battles while eating.

I can never cover all of the information imparted in this biography. It is minutely comprehensive and still, somehow, eminently readable. It is long but well worth the investment in time. What I appreciated most about Ron Chernow’s tome is the attention he gave to what happened in the South after the war. Perhaps Grant was too sympathetic to the officers and men when the war ended at Appomattox. He did nothing to humiliate them. He let them lay down their weapons and leave without persecution to go home to their land and families. But perhaps this allowed the South to keep too much of its pride and they secretly kept alive the resentments that had caused the rift to begin with. Chernow does not skirt the details of the ways Southern slave owners took out their anger on freed Americans of African Descent.

According to Chernow and his exhaustive research Ku Klux Klan activity was far more prevalent and deadly in those years of Reconstruction than represented in the stories we tell ourselves today (and in our school history classes). Current events teach us that those feelings kept alive in the South and imported to the North still inform our politics, and the feelings of white supremacy that seem to have been resurrected, but which never actually left us. Grant earned the lasting respect of black folks by sending troops to try to stop the carnage and the total unwillingness of slave owners to accept the freedom of their former slaves. He supported programs to educate former slaves and the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments were passed while he was President. Frederick Douglas remained a loyal acquaintance of Grant and expressed his gratitude again and again for the support Grant provided to back up freedom for all Americans. If Grant accomplished nothing else, what he accomplished in the arena of freedom and equality for formerly enslaved Americans should move him far above the rank he held until now in the pantheon of American presidents. He deplored the fact that Reconstruction did not end racial hatred in Southern whites.

Mr. Chernow does not buy the tales that make drunkenness a key trait in Grant’s life. He finds a pattern to Grant’s binges and gives him credit for fighting against the hold alcohol had for him when he was without the comforts of his family (as soldiers often are). He admits that Grant was connected to a number of corrupt schemes while he was President and later when he resided in NYC. But if you follow the money you find that Grant never was at all corrupt himself. He was guilty of being unable to see through people, especially when they were friends. Since many people had been his fellow soldiers he tended to give them credit for being loyal friends when they were actually involved in collecting payoffs in scams such as the whisky ring, and the Indian ring, and other scandals of the Gilded Age. Juicy, interesting, and deplorable stuff. Many government rules were different than they are today and corruption was easy if you valued money over morals. Probably a number of rules and protections in our current government were passed to fight the human impulse to corruption which exists, of course, to this day.

It’s a wonderful biography, well researched and full of quotes from primary sources and although it may put a crimp in your accounting of the number of books you get to read this year it will offer such in-depth quality that you will not mind the hit you take in terms of the quantity of books you get to read.

 

 

Notes on a Foreign Country by Suzy Hansen – Book

Suzy Hansen won a writing fellowship in 2007 from Charles Crane, “a Russophile and scion of a plumbing-parts fortune,” and it allowed her to go abroad for 2 years. She went to Turkey, much to the dismay of her family and friends. This grant was rumored to have been reserved for spies but Suzy was in Turkey as a journalist. The book she wrote is called Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World. Hansen goes off to Turkey believing that America is the exceptional nation that it claims to be. She had been taught, as we all have, to feel a certain smugness about being American, brought up in a can-do nation where freedom reigns. But the people of Turkey had not been indoctrinated in the American version of American history. They experienced the Turkish version of American interaction and they were not as enamored of America as some of us, in all our innocence, tend to be.

America has had a sort of missionary zeal about spreading the wonders of our Democracy to nations it has deemed might be tending towards Communism. The period after WWII was all about a sort of contest between Russia and America to divide the world’s nations like so many spoils of war, much the way England and Spain, in all their pride, divided up the world (something the world did not necessarily know about or agree to).  We tend to think of America as being different from those early imperialists, but what Hansen learned in Turkey, and then in Greece, and Afghanistan is that imperialism was still practiced by America, but in different forms.

America went on a tear after the Marshall Plan went into effect in the post-world war II years and aggressively wooed any nation that it thought might be susceptible to Communism. It offered “modernization” in the form of convincing nations to develop their resources and to welcome industry and business (Capitalism). It tempted citizens with luxury goods and pricey comforts. Before nations even realized what was happening they began to lose their individuality, their unique culture, even in some cases their language.

America tempted governments with weapons and military accessories like planes and ships and if they were reluctant America would even support political turmoil and install a new leader. All these meddlesome things were done in the arrogant belief that people wanted to live like everyone lived in America. If they even had to modify their Muslim faith to fit in these new tastes that it would turn out well for them (or for America anyway) in the end. According to Ms. Hansen, America, in its extreme hubris has wreaked havoc with cultures all over the world and we have a lot to answer for. She is not alone in this belief.

I was torn as I read this book. I have always respected the idea of democratic governance. I also knew that America had never, from its very beginnings, lived up to its creed. Our forefathers said that all men are created equal and they wrote it down for all to see, even though they kept slaves who were also human beings, and some of them even admitted that these slaves were human beings. The very fact that our Constitution was based on a lie may have doomed American democracy from its inception. That may be why we see ourselves in one rather glittery way and why others think that luster is quite tarnished.

I understand what Suzy’s European friends felt and I understand that they experienced America from a different perspective than we often do. I am rather ashamed of the America she describes in this nonfiction book based on her first-hand observations. Probably, although you may resist the message that Ms. Hansen brings us from our neighbors on this planet, you should still give this book your careful attention. She and her favorite author, James Baldwin, can help you readjust America’s halo.

I want America to face up to its flaws and do better. Although that seems quite impossible right now, I want America to eventually succeed in finding a balance between power and humility. If we cannot mend our ways in the world it is possible that the American culture, as many claim, will truly be in decline. I would hate to see the idealistic aims of our democracy disappear because we cannot contain our rapaciousness, which is often a sin that comes with power.

In the Epilogue Suzy Hansen talks about America after Trump:

“But I did believe that in at least one way Trump voters were little different from anyone else in the country. They, like all Americans, had been told a lie: that they were the best, that America was the best, that their very birthright was progress and prosperity and the envy and admiration of the world. I did not blame those voters for Trump’s election…I blamed the country for Trump’s election because it was a country built on the rhetoric and actions of American supremacy or ‘greatness,’ or ‘exceptionalism,’ … it had been built on the presupposition that America was and should be, the most powerful country on the planet.”

I have not given up on my country yet, despite all its flaws, although I have never been more tempted to become an American in exile, a lifestyle I cannot afford. It never hurts an individual to do some introspection and it never hurts a nation (made of individuals) to turn critical and honest eyes inward. Suzy Hansen’s book Notes on a Foreign Country was an emotional and an intellectual journey.

 

 

 

 

Evicted by Matthew Desmond – Book

Matthew Desmond’s book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City summarizes the lengthy and intimate researches of this sociologist with a MacArthur Genius Grant who has done his due diligence. His interest is in analyzing and discovering ways for breaking up stubborn, seemingly impossible-to-resolve problems that make life a misery for poor folks, especially black poor folks, and single mothers who are at the absolute bottom of the economic heap.

Mr. Desmond, a young man, still in college, moves into two different poor neighborhoods in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Since he is white he perhaps would have been distrusted in a minority neighborhood so he started out in a trailer park at the edge of the city with a more mixed-race population. This allowed him to make some connections, see some possible housing issues and eventually he was able to enter the predominately black North Side as a resident. He roomed with a black policeman called Officer Woo (a childhood nickname).

Obviously poverty and all of the things attendant on it, such as lack of education or training, being limited to low paying jobs, being hungry and having to spend too much time finding food for your family, not having an appropriate job wardrobe are all factors that contribute to keeping poor people from rising.

But Matthew Desmond decided to focus on the issue of housing and he exposes an angle on urban poverty that we have not yet explored in enough detail. He looks specifically at the part evictions play in squelching opportunity. He looks at a cycle that allows ever higher rents that do not decrease for low value properties. He looks at the gap between incomes and rents. He introduces us to the people he met who let him have access to their personal finances. I will issue a warning to you that they still haunt him even as he moves on to pursue his own life, and they will stay with you also.

Anecdotal studies are difficult because of the fact that the researcher is present and interacting. This can change the data in ways that are quite subtle, and perhaps not so subtle, sort of the way in which a rock bends the current in a stream. Desmond tried to keep his presence somewhat personal even as he also stuck to his position as a writer and a recorder of the lives of the people he met. He calls his report, his book, an ethnography, which seems accurate enough.

Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey has a book club every summer. He chooses a title and everyone who signs up for the book club reads the same book. There is a discussion session at a certain date. This is the book for summer, 2017. You could probably still sign up.

I’m not going to summarize Desmond’s findings or his suggestions for fixing this seeming unresolvable dilemma of inner cities which seem to act like traps, robbing Americans of the comforts we expect life in America to offer. These observations are the entire content of his book. However, I will say, “Good choice, Cory Booker!”

Flâneuse by Laura Elkin – Book

Laura Elkin’s book Flâneuse is not the first book about women who are the counterparts of the more usual male figure, the flâneur, A few other books with this title predate hers. Her book has a subtitle: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London and reads very much like a doctoral dissertation, although the language is not quite as academic, and the book tends to offer a warmer reading experience than the expected dry fare of the dissertation. The flâneur she tells us is “one who walks aimlessly…A figure of masculine privilege and leisure, with time and money and no immediate responsibilities to claim his attention.

Flâneuse is the feminine form and denotes “an idler, a dawdling observer, usually found in cities. But each flâneuse discussed in any detail by Elkin is not truly idle. These women were writers, photographers, artists. Until recently it was difficult for a woman to be a flâneuse. Writer Janet Wolff did not give credence to the flâneuse as “such a character was rendered impossible by the sexual divisions of the nineteenth century.” Other writers agree. But Elkin reminds us that the rise of the department store in the 1850’s and 60’s “did much to normalize the appearance of women in public.”

Laura Elkin was born on Long Island where no one walked anywhere. Her father was an architect who designed some of the corporate headquarters as companies left the city and moved into newly designed corporate parks. But Elkin discovered that she belonged in cities when she moved into New York City to attend college. “To sit in a restaurant on Broadway with the world walking by and the cars and the taxis and the noise was like finally being let in to the centre of the universe, after peering in at it for so long.”

The book is dense with detailed examples of women writers, artists, journalists, and more who felt most at home in cities and used the intimate details of city life gained through wandering and observation to enlighten us all. Elkin gives us a taste of London, following in Virginia Woolf’s footsteps; a soupçon of Venice, New York, and Tokyo (where wandering alone around the city is basically impossible even in daylight); but mainly of Paris which ended up being her home.

Artists she expands on in some detail, both about their lives and their work include Jean Rhys (allied with Ford Maddox Ford), George Sand (who dressed as a boy/man to roam the city freely), Virginia Woolf, Martha Gellhorn (wife of Ernest Hemingway and war journalist and more), and Agnès Varda, in French films.

Elkin’s sums things up in this way, “You don’t need to crunch around in Gore-Tex to be subversive, if you’re a woman. Just walk out your front door.” Reading this tome is a bit like being a literary flâneuse without having to leave your armchair – lots of great little tidbits.

Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World by Adam Grant – Book

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How often have you wondered what traits and habits turn someone into “an original” – someone who succeeds in some way that makes them stand out, or even just someone who pursues their own interests without being concerned about what is considered as “normal”, or “cool”? How often have you wondered if you might be an “original” if you only did not have to work? This nonfiction offering, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World by Adam Grant, attempts to study individuals or businesses that cultivate new ground either successfully or not. There is, quite logically, an attempt to create a matrix of characteristics which might help you analyze whether or not you might be an original, and traits which might explode some myths about people we respect as originals. He includes examples from current culture to back up his points.

Originals may not have the traits you would expect them to have. For example, the author tells us, originals are often procrastinators who put off delivering their final product until the last minute, which gives them time for late developments. They do not accept failure but they often fail many times before they find an idea that works. Grant tells about the ups and downs of the Warby-Parker site creators of the online eye glass site. People thought buying eyeglasses online would never fly but this site is now quite successful. The authors tells us that these originals and, in fact, most of these risk-takers often do not give up their day jobs. It seems that leaping in one aspect of your life while maintaining stability in others areas seems to be the rule rather than the exception.

The author goes through many studies that have been conducted by business experts trying to discover what makes businesses succeed or fail. The Segway and the Polaroid camera are both examples of business products that lost ground because the creators did not want dissenters and hired only admirers who could not break the “bubble” that would have allowed the business to respond flexibly to cultural trends or be aware of market trends that should have been heeded.

I don’t know how exhaustive our knowledge of “originals” is as a result of what this author shares with us. Any attempt to quantify complex and many-faceted intangibles; to produce a list of causes that will produce a desired effect in order to bring about such a non-concrete outcome, is bound to be oversimplified. Adam Grant does not actually give us a list of methodologies to become originals, rather he attempts to explode the myths we already have about what conditions it takes to be such an inventor, creator, prime mover. However there is plenty of encouragement In Grant’s book for people who think that all Originals are uniformly productive and consistently confident. It is also interesting to see what areas are the focus of those who study businesses.

You can find my reviews at Nancy Brisson at http://goodreads.com/

 

From Silk to Silicon by Jeffrey E Garten – Book Review and Comments on Globalization

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I tend to think that we are living in the most global age ever and my take on global government often harkens back to the science fiction books I have always enjoyed so much, so my construct tends to actually be governance of the galaxy. In The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov the Galactic Empire exists but it is on its way out. Preparations have already been made to train brilliant humans who will bring the Empire back from the Dark Ages into which it has been plunged. In Dune we have the Spacer’s Guild, the Bene Gesserit, and the noble houses in a feudal society with everyone owing allegiance to the Padishah Emperor. In Star Wars we know that there is a rebel alliance at war with the empire and prequels fill in the backstory showing us a government full of corruption, swollen, unwieldy, and divided.

So I often try to imagine what our government might be like if we did have a global government. I can imagine a system where we keep our individual nations but belong to some overarching body that coordinates everything and keeps a more and more complex world ticking along smoothly and peacefully (which you would think might be the United Nations, except that this idea makes some people paranoid). I realize that this is as much science fiction right now as any of my old beloved sci-fi books, but there is a corner of my mind that believes that we could possibly pull this off (a very optimistic corner of my mind).

But, Jeffrey E. Garten the author of From Silk to Silicon: The Story of Globalization through Ten Extraordinary Lives does not see globalization as something to be achieved in the future if we ever get our act together. He feels that people on this planet have been making the world smaller and more connected for centuries and he doesn’t even go back as far as the Roman Empire. He goes back to Genghis Khan (1162-1227) ravaging his way across most of Asia and even perhaps into a swath of Europe conquering and killing out of motives very like vengeance but also mixing cultures along the way, sending beautiful objects and bright people to live in the peaceful parts of his empire and setting up the trade routes that became the very well-traveled Silk Road.

He goes on to talk about nine more people who have connected parts of the globe and made it easier for goods, services, and people to wander further and/or faster or even to stay in one place and still connect with distant corners of the planet. He includes Prince Henry the “Navigator” (although he believes that name is a misnomer), too young a son to inherit a kingdom but driven to find his niche in Portugal and perhaps his legacy. He begins as a conqueror, continues as a sponsor of explorations, and sadly winds up bringing slaves to Europe from Africa.

We have Cyrus Field who tried time and time again until he devised a system that worked to lay a trans-Atlantic telegraph cable from Newfoundland to England allowing messages to travel in minutes rather than weeks and months. Garten tells us about a Jewish banker who went home to the Jewish ghetto each night but was trusted to bring funds and investment money to and from rich and even royal men all over Europe and England. He tells us how Mayer Amschel Rothschild continued to live in his old neighborhood even as he founded banks in all of the important European cities and sent his sons out to run them. Would we have a modern banking system without him? Maybe, but it might not have gotten off to such a prosperous start.

Even Margaret Thatcher, a Prime Minister who people love to hate, is given credit for breaking up socialism in England and sponsoring free trade, things which ended what might have been a long-standing recession in Great Britain, at least for a time. And he tells us about Andrew Grove, eventual CEO of Microsoft, with his grasp of detail and his apparently inborn work ethic who revolutionized the microchip production industry when no one else seemed to be able to manufacture microchips that had the necessary qualities of consistency and usability.

There are a few others I did not name in this book review (great book, you should read it) but one of his main points was about what these folks had in common. They did not set out to contribute to the overall globalization of the world. They were not even always people who you would want to be in the path of, they could be cruel, they were all extremely determined, and their goals were often quite narrow, but offered out-sized consequences, sometimes deliberate, sometimes not.

So it seems all our talk about globalization in the 21st century needs to be placed in the context of all the connections made on our planet which began long before any of us existed. In other words, there is a historical context in which modern globalization is a continuation of a human tendency, rather than an innovation that is just coming into existence. Who will be the extraordinary individual who takes the baton and runs the next lap? Is this person already here, or far in the future? Only hindsight will tell. It could be you.

Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari – Book

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If you want to have someone talk about something as serious
as finding the one person who you will love forever when there are so many ways
for this search to go awry get a comedian to write a book about it. If that
book explores romantic disasters that range from the heartbreaking to the ridiculous,
all the better. If that comedian does his due diligence and confers with
experts who study dating, comparing dating options over several generations the
deal gets even several notches better. We get graphs and jokes and an
illumination of cultural trends in heterosexual pairing (not just in America
but also in some interesting international locations).

Modern
Romance
by Aziz Ansari reads almost like one of those ethnographies
anthropologists used to write about various isolated tribes (á la Margaret
Meade). Fortunately Aziz’s humor is not intrusive, is usually quite hip, and
causes readers to chortle out loud on occasion. The author’s obvious love of
good food and his continual gastronomic observations add to the fun and perhaps
prove that ‘the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach’.

Technology changes so fast that there is always the danger
that a book such as this will quickly turn into an ancient artifact. But right
now it is au currant and you probably
shouldn’t procrastinate about reading it, whether or not you are in the
relationship marketplace, because of the sometimes interesting research, both
informal and more academic that Ansari discusses.

Modern
Romance
ends with a discussion of whether a couple, after
experiencing that magical attraction of the first year to year and a half of a
great relationship should move into the less passionate, companionate phase
that follows it, or if an individual should just go from person to person and
peak to peak. Science makes a pretty good argument for growing up and moving
into that second phase apparently. Aziz says “But we want more than love. We
want a lifelong wingman/wingwoman who completes us and can handle the truth, to
mix metaphors from three different Tom Cruise movies.”

If you don’t know what it means to swipe right or swipe left
you should really find yourself a copy of Modern
Romance
and dive right in. If you know what this means this might be
required reading. 
 
By Nancy Brisson