Identity

The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment

[Amazon Link]

A short book by a serious Big-Thinking author, Francis Fukuyama. His theme is right there in the title: Identity. And he takes us on a magical mystery tour of all its origins and manifestations.

Origin-wise, the Greeks had a word for it: thymos, which they recognized as a separate component of human consciousness, apart from the facilities of reason and desire. It is the demand for recognition of one's dignity by one's fellow people. (Fukuyama quotes Adam Smith, but not the most succinct version that supports his thesis: "Man naturally desires, not only to be loved, but to be lovely; or to be that thing which is the natural and proper object of love.")

Which would be fine, even admirable, if it were limited to what we are entitled to by the bare fact of our species membership. But thymos often comes into conflict with one's social environment, especially when one has an unusual sense of one's nature. It then turns into a game of oppressor (society) vs. the oppressed (me, and people like me).

Even that's not necessarily bad: some people really are oppressed, and thymos can drive them to seek fair redress. More often these days,… well, you can read the papers as well as I can.

Even worse than standard thymos is megalothymia (Fukuyama's own word): the inner need to be recognized as superior to others. This isn't necessarily fatal; some form of megalothymia probably exists at the root of every damned politician, CEO, or movie star. But it's also the underlying motivation of every despot (or psychopathic killer, although Fukuyama doesn't go there).

The discussion is wide-ranging, because once you see the universal trait of thymos, it's not easy to unsee it: you start detecting its influence in every public policy debate. Immigration, education, trade, welfare, … you name it. And Fukuyama notes especially where an overdose of identity has brought us (and others) into a fractious state.

Fukuyama writes from a mildly liberal perspective, which can be a little off-putting at times. He admits that the key impetus to writing the book was Trump's election, and also the Brexit vote. He views both as horrible, and products of megalothymia.

And then sometimes he just goes off the rails. He writes of the Obamacare campaign: "The ACA's opponents tried to frame it as an identity issue, suggesting sotto voce that the policy was designed by a black president to help his black constituents."

As someone who was paying attention to opponents' arguments, I'm reasonably sure that's a lot of hooey. (Although claiming that such framing was "sotto voce" allows Fukuyama to get away with not actually providing examples.)

A Think Tank for Liberty

A Personal History of Reason Foundation

[Amazon Link]

I got this as a freebie for being a contributor to Reason magazine. So I felt obligated to read it.

Make no mistake, the author, Robert B. Poole, should be one of the heroes of the libertarian movement. He transformed Reason from a cranky mimeographed rag into a high-quality professional magazine with national import. He was also the driver of the Reason Foundation (the "think tank" of the title), which performs solid scholarship on the various misfeatures of the "mixed economy."

So, good news: there are parts of this book that are very interesting, notably Poole's own story, his relationships with co-Reasoners, his insights into various controversies he's been part of.

But there's also bad news: at times, the book reads like one of those annual evaluation reports put together for The Boss. Details about what meetings were taken, with whom, what happened as a result. Phone calls. Trips to different places. We got money from this guy. But this guy got a little pissed off by something in the magazine! Bob, don't worry! You can have your raise! It's richly deserved!

Instead of reading "then we did this study" over and over again, I think would have been significantly more interesting to read the studies themselves. Poole has long been a champion of privatizing infrastructure and some state-provided services. That's an ongoing battle, with Poole and his Reason friends providing ammo for the side of the angels. (You can check out the current foundation work at their website.)

But I shouldn't complain overmuch about the book Poole chose not to write. Especially a freebie.

Mother American Night

My Life in Crazy Times

[Amazon Link]

Back in the day, I attended John Perry Barlow's keynote address at the Winter 1994 USENIX Conference. And was favorably impressed. (And, holy crap, that was over a quarter century ago.) Barlow had a lot of insights into what the Internet was and could be, he had a lot of criticisms of "Internet Inventor" Al Gore, and (above all) he had a Hayekian grasp of the power of emergent order.

So I kind of paid attention over the years as he flitted in and out ot the news. And last year …

Well, let me put it this way: the "Acknowledgments" section at the end of the book is dated "February 5, 2018". And then follows the "About the Author" section, which (in its entirety) states that "On February 7, 2018, John Perry Barlow died in his sleep of natural causes. He was seventy years old."

Now that's poignant. (And causes some morbid reflection: he was only 3.5 years older than I.)

Anyway, this is his sort-of memoir. To understate things significantly: Barlow led an interesting life. He grew up in a Wyoming ranch family, and the Grateful Dead's Bob Weir was a childhood friend. He came east to Wesleyan University, where he attempted a suicide bombing in Harvard Yard. This did not keep him from graduating, and he was later accepted to Harvard Law. (That's only one of the things that will make you say: "Geez, the sixties were different.")

Also during college, he fell in with Timothy Leary's crowd, and became a frequent acid tripper. This becomes a recurring theme throughout the book: he was an extravagant User of Substances both legal (alcohol, tobacco) and not (everything else, as near as I can tell).

This did not stop him from becoming a lyricist for the Grateful Dead via his friendship with Weir. Well, actually, that's something you might expect.

What you might not expect is his deep admiration for fellow Wyomingite Alan Simpson (yup, the Republican Senator) and his relationship with Dick Cheney (Barlow was not so much a Cheney fan). Barlow actually held positions in the Wyoming GOP.

Also, Barlow was one of the founders of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. For which all current Internet users probably owe him a debt of gratitude.

Along the way, Barlow drops names as frequently as he drops acid. He was good buddies with JFK Jr. Daryl Hannah. Alan Alda. Snowden and Assange. Andy Warhol. Anita Hill (dated not once, not twice, but thrice!). Steve Jobs.

Like I said: an interesting life. Unfortunately, the continual themes of sex, drugs, rock&roll is de rigueur for this kind of memoir; I would have liked to see a little more emphasis on the brilliant insights that turned me into a fan, twenty-five years ago.

But it could be that twenty-five years of hard Substance-based living can dull that brilliance quite a bit.

Fire in the Hole

[Amazon Link]

Consumer note: this collection of Elmore Leonard yarns was previously published under the title When the Women Come Out To Dance. So if you own When the Women Come Out To Dance, you might not want to plunk down cash for this too. (Or maybe you do, I don't know your book-buying motives.)

Anyway, I bought it because I embarked on this project to read all Leonard's works that contained Raylan Givens, due to my fanboyhood for the Justified TV series. That involved me reading the other eight stories in this slim volume, too. But that's OK.

The Fire in the Hole story sort of follows the premiere episode of Justified. Raylan has been assigned to the US Marshals in Kentucky, his old stomping ground. In the meantime, his old acquaintance, Boyd Crowder, has formed a white supremecist/Nazi group that likes to blow things up and rob banks. This sets Raylan and Boyd on a collision course, complicated by the further fact that Ava, over whom Raylan mooned in high school, has recently shot Boyd's brother (and her husband), Bowman, dead.

Big change between the TV show and the book, not a spoiler at this late date: Boyd dies.

The other stories in the book are good, but none to make me rush out to get the non-Raylan titles in the Leonardian canon. Capsule summaries: (1) an arson investigator interrogates a comely lass who might have burned her place down, using a California wildfire as cover; (2) an ex-ballplayer tries to parley his mostly-nonexistent fame into a celebrity gig at a casino; (3) a couple folks in a retirement community banter (really!); (4) shady deals are made between an ex-stripper unhappily maried to an abusive tycoon and her new Central American maid; (5) Leonard regular Karen Sisco (also a US Marshal) finds herself involved with Carl, who just might be a bank robber; (6) an African-American veteran of the Spanish-American War and the Rough Riders has some conflict with racist small-town inhabitants, as one of his comrades returns to a hero's welcome; (7) a cattle thief gets unexpectedly involved with the tattooed/disfigured wife of the baron he plans to rob; and (8) an ex-rodeo star, ex-movie stuntman returns to his hometown to find that his ranch has been taken over by petty (but violent) criminals.


Last Modified 2019-04-14 7:04 PM EDT

Endangered

[Amazon Link]

Another fine outing for C. J. Box, with the latest exploits of Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett. Who goes through an unusual amount of hell here.

As the book opens, Joe is investigating the remains of Lek 64, a sage grouse colony that's been shotgun-slaughtered by persons unknown. A major distraction intervenes: Joe's wayward daughter April has been discovered nearly beaten to death on the side of a road.

Suspicion naturally falls on the rodeo cowboy with whom April had run off in the previous book. But (hm) an anonymous tip is called in, pointing the finger at a reclusive, heavily armed nutjob who doesn't recognize government authority, etc.

In the meantime, Joe's friend Nate Romanowski is in the hands of Federal law enforcement, and they have the bright idea to release him and use him as bait to entrap the at-large bad guy Nate betrayed in the previous book of the series. But Nate's only out for a brief time until he runs into big trouble.

Confession: I thought I saw the big plot twist well in advance. I was wrong. Author Box had me fooled.

Antarctica

[Amazon Link]

True story: I paid the full $24.95 list price for this book in August 1998 while on vacation in Bar Harbor. Maine. How do I remember that? Ah, because it's signed and dated by the author, Kim Stanley Robinson, his own self. I had happened to notice that a local bookstore was on his book tour stop, and popped in. (He's a pretty nice guy, at least I remember he seemed to be in 1998.)

I had previously read his famous trilogy Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars, which gathered a bunch of awards, including two Hugos and one Nebula.

Unfortunately, Antarctica got zero awards. And (for no good reason) it's been sitting on my bookshelf, unread for over 20 years. That's why, readers, I implemented my book picking system, which at least gives such neglected tomes a chance at being read, eventually.

So enough prelude: Antarctica is a big book, clocking in at over 500 pages. And, at least for me, it should have been at best a 200 page book. Explanation One: I'm a Philistine, KSR is a professional writer, he wrote exactly the book he wanted to, and if I wasn't impressed, that's on me.

Explanation Two: he had a book contract that demanded 500 pages, and he larded up a decent plot with endless digressions and irrelevancies.

I don't know which explanation is more on target.

Anyway, there are three main characters: "X", a "General Field Assistant" working for the oppressive corporation that runs official Antarctic operations; Val, an Amazonian guide, responsible for shepherding adventure-seeking tourists on treks through the frigid landscape; and Wade, a researcher for a US Senator, on a fact-finding mission. Things kick off when X is the only human accompanying a robotic caravan of tractors delivering supplies to the interior; he is surprised when unseen pirates manage to grab one of the tractors.

A promising, intriguing beginning. But then… pretty much nothing happens for the next 200+ pages. Then there's (spoiler) an exciting, harrowing story of near-disaster triggered by a quirky avalanche and some ecological saboteurs. And there's a cool climax which caused me to think: "Ah. Blimpi ex machina!

And then nothing much interesting happens for the rest of the book. Eh.

The novel is set sometime in the future when the Ross Ice Shelf has melted away, thanks to Global Warming. This doesn't appear to be likely to happen anytime soon. KSR is also a "democratic socialist" and that, I'm afraid, is part of the reason I found this book tedious in many spots.

Network Propaganda

Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics

[Amazon Link]

Not sure why I got this from the University Near Here Library. Maybe some recommendation I read somewhere a few months back? Anyway, it's outside my usual non-fiction diet, which slants libertarian/conservative. Probably a good thing.

Consumer note: you can by the book at Amazon via the link at your right (as I type: $88.18 hardcover, $25.16 paperback, $11.11 Kindle) or you can apparently read the whole darn thing for free here.

The authors contend that, thanks to the Internet and its participants, we are in an "epistemic crisis", where voters are going to the polls "knowing" things that just aren't so. They blame primarily the right-wing media for pushing stories that are based on rumor and innuendo. Their primary examples: Pizzagate, the Seth Rich murder, Uranium One. (On the other hand, they're relatively dismissive of Russian influences via their Facebook ad buys.)

Their claims are based on exhaustive analysis of linking behaviors on Facebook and Twitter. They assign a central importance to Breitbart, Infowars, Gateway Pundit, and Zero Hedge, which (they say) played a major role at pushing fake news out to their readers. On the broadcast side, Fox News is claimed to be guilty of similar bad behavior.

Oh yes, there are also lefty sites. But (it's claimed) they aren't as bad. The attitudes toward truth are linked up with the standard "journalistic norms" exhibited by the respectable news outlets: the New York Times, the Washington Post, ABC, NBC, CBS, … basically anything not called "Fox News". Hence the information consumed by American left and right wings is "asymmetrical", with the right far more likely to believe delusional stuff.

And Politifact is not biased.

This goes on to influence their recommendations for reform: since the "problem" is on the right, the proposed solutions are predictably skewed too. Their only criticism of what we right-wing loons call the Mainstream Media: ah, they take that whole this-side-said/that-side-said model of fairness as flawed: How can that be fair when the right side lies all the time?

Obviously, I had a number of problems with the book's analyses. In no particular order:

  • Not that it matters, but this came up in my feed today from the Daily Wire: Reuters Admits They Sat On Bombshell Beto O'Rourke Story For 2 Years. This true story about O'Rourke's hacktivist past could have negatively impacted his chances in his race against Ted Cruz. Violation of journalistic norms? I'm afraid the authors of Network Propaganda would consider it, at best an aberration.

    Unfortunately, this is just today's example. The authors turn a deaf ear to what by now is substantive conservative/libertarian criticism of the MSM.

  • Which (in turn) means that they don't really understand the evolution of right-wing sites, many if not most of which were formed to fill a niche in the media ecosystem in response to MSM failings. "Asymmetry" shouldn't be surprising—it's exactly what you'd expect from essentially dissident media, voices that exist specifically in reaction and opposition to the dominant narrative.

  • Since we are all human beings suffering under the same cognitive biases, it would be surprising if the right wing was uniquely under the spell of fakery. You don't have to have a very long memory to recall the heyday of 9/11 Trutherism, in which a good-sized fraction of the populace were led to believe the WTC buildings were brought down by explosives secretly planted in the two buildings and/or that the government knew about the attacks ahead of time and consciously decided to let them happen.

    There are also the JFK assassination conspiracy theories: he wasn't shot by a Russia/Cuba-loving commie, but a shadowy cabal of right-wing plotters. (One variety of the theories even got a movie devoted to it, gathering eight Oscar nominations.)

    And also unconsidered is the oeuvre of Michael Moore, at least as truth-challenged as anything at Breitbart, but much more "respectable".

    The authors ignore this sort of lefty propaganda, with the implied excuse that it's conveniently outside the time window they concentrated on. I think the resulting "asymmetry" in their analysis is the book's biggest flaw.

  • I'm probably biased and maybe unrepresentative, but my personal experience with right-wing media differs strongly from what the authors picture. I had given up on Breitbart by early 2016. I don't watch Fox News much, never got into any of the wackiness at Infowars or Gateway Pundit. Zero Hedge was not a habit either (but it seems OK to me).

    The authors claim that their analysis shows that these sites are uniquely influential on the right. Uh, fine, but I'm not convinced.

There are other quibbles, but I've babbled long enough. Anyway, feel free to check it out for yourself. I feel virtuous for being "outside the bubble", having looked at a book that I disagree with so strongly.


Last Modified 2019-03-18 6:22 AM EDT

The Scarlet Pimpernel

[Amazon Link]

Before Iron Man, before Batman, before even Zorro, there was… the Scarlet Pimpernel! Seemingly a mild-mannered doofus, he covertly assumes an alternate identity to right wrongs, save the endangered, and to make his enemies look foolish.

Pun Son was assigned this book back in his school days, and left his copy hanging around when he got his own place. I knew (vaguely) the idea of the story, sounded appealing to my anti-French Revolution sentiments, so…

The general idea: in the midst of the Reign of Terror, the Pimpernel takes on the task of rescuing French aristocrats (men, women, children) from the bloodthirsty revolutionaries. He uses disguise, distraction, and deception. And this puts him in the crosshairs of the evil Chauvelin, who will stop at nothing to capture and kill him.

There were many surprising things about the book.

  • The writing is … um … ornate. Purple, verging on ultraviolet. In fact, it seems that the Baroness Orczy was trying, paragraph after paragraph, to win the Bulwer Lytton Fiction Contest. YMMV, but I found it to be kind of a hoot after a while.

  • The identity of the Scarlet Pimp is kept hidden from the reader (and the main character) for about the first 58% of the book. Big secret!

    Or (in my son's paperback copy) you can just read the big secret on the back cover. Spoiler alert necessary!

    But I'm kinda kidding. Any fan of the Batman/Zorro genre will have the Pimp identified well before the big reveal. Cherchez le fop!

  • But you notice I referred to the "main character" above? That turns out not to be the Scarlet Pimpernel, who actually appears on relatively few pages of the book. The main character is Marguerite St. Just, a dazzling, witty, charming beauty.

    Unfortunately for her, but fortunately for the plot, she's also kind of a ditz. So not just an inspiration for Batman/Zorro: the miscommunications and mixups between Marguerite and her hubby are no doubt the vitalizing force behind thousands of American sitcom episodes.

Fun read.

Them

Why We Hate Each Other--and How to Heal

[Amazon Link]

Ben Sasse is (you probably know) a US Senator from Nebraska. I speculate that, against his 99 colleagues, he is the brightest, funniest, best-read, and most insightful. I'm not sure who even comes close.

This book is his diagnosis of the social illnesses in the early 21st-century US. The litany is well-known, pretty much, but the book's subtitle ("Why We Hate Each Other") is an incomplete summary. At the root of things, Sasse claims, is loneliness: the increasing fraction of people who lack deep, thick roots into their communities. Various symptoms: people living alone, or far away from their extended families. Declining chuch attendance. Declining importance of civic organizations. Increasing urbanization. Lack of dependable long-term employment. And on, and on.

So nasty spats between political tribes are at best a secondary symptom of our underlying institutional decay. When the non-governmental institutions dry up, the only thing left is, for better or worse (and it's usually for worse) is politics. Choose a tribe, and go to no-holds-barred war with the infidels.

[Amazon Link]

A possibly-unfair observation: one of the more important books of the last few decades was The Future and Its Enemies by Virginia Postrel. At a number of spots, Sasse sounds like … one of the enemies.

Sasse has a number of recommendations, but they're aimed at the reader: wherever you live, join with good people doing good works. Take time for your family. Limit your tech time. (I think he recommends unfollowing your politics-obsessed social media buddies! That's something, hm, I could see doing myself.

Hey, he could be right, and the trends our country are mindlessly riding might take us right into the ditch. I would bet on us muddling through, as usual. Mainly because I remember the 1960s vividly—literally before Sasse was born—and the social fabric was in much worse shape then.

Sasse's prose is super-accessible; anyone at a middle-school level or above would have no problem whizzing through the book. I sometimes call this USA Today-ese: "We're eating more kale then ever before." That's not a slam, Sasse wants to appeal to the broadest audience.

So I had some problems with the book, but I recommend it to anyone concerned about the long term future of our culture. And I wish that somehow, magically, we could install a bunch of Sasse clones in our Federal, State, and local legislative bodies.

The Green Hills of Earth

[Amazon Link]

Another book down on the rereading-Heinlein project, this one a collection of ten short stories in his "Future History" timeline. Only a couple were originally published in science fiction magazines; the remainder were published in mainstream mags like the Saturday Evening Post.

Edition trivia: I reread the paperback I picked up a long time ago. How long ago? Well, the cover price is a cool 35¢. A used copy of this edition at Amazon will set you back at least $6.49 with shipping. (It seems the current in-print version lists for $7.99, but it's combined with The Menace from Earth.)

I can't recommend it, unless (like me) you're a slightly obsessive Heinlein completist. The stories:

"Delilah and the Space Rigger"
Workers on a space station under construction are flummoxed when an incoming worker turns out to be a dame! After much sexist snarling, it's realized that productivity has actually improved after her arrival. Get more dames up here! Also, a padre!
"Space Jockey"
A rocket pilot squabbles with the Mrs. about his demanding job, but (also) saves the day after an obstreperous brat in his ship's control room sends them wildly off course.
"The Long Watch"
There are nuclear weapons on the Moon, ostensibly for peacekeeping purposes. Unfortunately, a madman (think: Jack D. Ripper) takes over and proposes to nuke a few cities and establish a Terran military dictatorship. Fortunately, our self-sacrificing hero saves the day. (This is actually a pretty good yarn.)
"Gentlemen, Be Seated!"
Three guys in a damaged lunar tunnel which is slowly losing pressure. What to do? You assiduously (heh) use whatever patching material comes to hand.
"The Black Pits of Luna"
A family on a lunar tour with two young boys. Fine, but… oh oh, the younger, more impetuous one goes wandering off and nobody can find him! Except his older brother, who uses his knowledge of what the kid likes to do.
"It's Great to Be Back!"
A married couple is unhappy with their life on the Moon, and return to good old Earth. Then they realize that Earth is no great shakes either, and return to the Moon. (Sorry, I guess that was a spoiler. But that's really all that happens.)
"—We Also Walk Dogs"
A lucrative "solve every problem" company is confronted with a toughie, which merely involves the invention of a gravity-controlling device. Only problem: the guy who can do it is kind of a reclusive nut. (Just like all physicists, except more so.) How to persuade him? It turns out he has a weakness for…
"Ordeal in Space"
A former spaceman severely traumatized by a near-fatal spacewalk returns to earth. He is cured by rescuing a kitten. No, I am not making this up.
"The Green Hills of Earth"
The book's title track is the story of Rhysling, "blind singer of the spaceways". A warts-and-all mini-bio of the man. (I recommend the Wikipedia page that goes into detail on the story's origin and impact. Did you know that the Apollo 15 astronauts named a lunar crater "Rhysling"?)
"Logic of Empire"
Two friends argue about the labor system on Venus: is it slavery? After considerable amounts of drinking, one of the participants finds himself shanghaied … to Venus! And yep, if it's not slavery, it's a remarkable facsimile.

Mainly notable for a long paragraph near the end, which appears to be pseudo-Marxian claptrap about the inevitable appearance of slave labor in a colonial setting where the monetary system designed to mumble mumble mumble… Seems to be a leftover from his flirtation with Upton Sinclair-style "wage slavery" leftism.

All stories are notable for their detailed descriptions of imaginary technology. Heinlein was very much a show-the-rivets writer.