Review: 9-11 (Chomsky)

Review: 9-11 (Chomsky)

9-11 by Noam Chomsky

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

For a book that is admittedly kind of a rush job (it consists of a series of interviews done within a few weeks of the attacks, at a time when we were still uncertain whether Bin Laden was responsible), it has held up pretty well. If you are familiar with Chomsky’s critiques of American foreign policy, there will not be very much new here. This book is, rather, an attempt to popularize his basic views; and this means contextualizing the terrorist attack of 9/11 within the history of America’s own violent attacks on other nations.

Ironically, though the tone and subject of this book are quite serious, I often found myself thinking of a comical exchange between Chomsky and the popular philosopher, Sam Harris. Harris presents himself as a paragon of reason; and as part of that, he attempted to have a sort of sober “exchange” of views with Chomsky. This quickly devolved into acrimony as Chomsky was not, shall we say, in a friendly mood. However, I do think that the exchange does, somehow, effectively pinpoint the ethical position that Chomsky is taking, and that so many people fail to understand.

The disagreement between the two centers around the 1998 U.S. bombing of the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory, in Sudan. Chomsky uses this as an example of American state terrorism, and in this book asks the reader what would be the response if the situation was reversed, and Sudan had bombed a U.S. pharmaceutical plant. Harris’s defense—and I believe this is the standard argument in favor of U.S. intervention—is that our intentions were pure. We did not mean to kill anybody or deprive anybody of life-saving medication; we were just trying to stop terrorists from producing weapons.

Harris presents Chomsky with several thought experiments, making the (rather facile) point that intentions matter when making ethical judgments. If I try to save somebody and they die anyway, I am ethically superior to someone who killed somebody and succeeded. But Harris overlooks the (I think) quite obvious point that there is a grey area between altruistic and hostile intentions—that is, not caring one way or the other—which, ethically speaking, is often hardly better than being actively hostile.

This aptly describes the mentality behind the U.S. bombing of Al-Shifa. Consider: If we thought that weapons were being produced by terrorists in, say, Brussels, would we have sent cruise missiles to blow up the building? Obviously not, because the “collateral damage” would be deemed totally unacceptable. And yet, in the case of Sudan—a much poorer country, where people are far more dependent on a single factory for life-saving medicine—the decision was made quickly in favor of attack. Clearly, Sudanese lives were not deemed as important as Belgian ones would have been; and this shows an ethical stance of disregard.

A great deal of Chomsky’s critique on American foreign policy boils down to an attempt to get us to consider all lives as equally valuable, and all nations as equally sovereign. That is, to stop applying a double standard—one treatment for poor nations, another for rich ones. We are still very far from this stance. If we found out that the attack of 9/11 originated in, say, Ireland, what are the chances that we would have invaded the entire country? As Chomsky points out, the U.K. did not invade and bomb Boston, even though many of its citizens actively funded the IRA.

We can see this uncaring attitude of American foreign policy in the August 29 bombing that killed 10 in Kabul this year. None of those killed were terrorists, but six of them were children. Harris excuses “mistakes” like this by pointing to limitations in our intelligence and our weapons technology. With perfect knowledge and perfect weapons, we would never kill any civilians. This is like hunting for ducks in a crowded city park, and then blaming the shotgun when a person gets hit. Being ethical means acting within the limitations imposed by a situation, and considering the possible negative consequences of an action. No drone strike would have taken place in Brussels. But again, the possibility of killing innocent Afghanis is given very little weight.

It is clear that we are dealing with a serious sort of moral blindness, since it leads us to commit blunders as well as crimes. We even seem to think that everyone else will see past the accidental death and destruction, and give us credit for our irreproachably pure intentions. Thus, we are surprised when our long occupation of Afghanistan ends in a humiliating defeat, as we cannot understand why the population does not rally around our wonderful American values. But what speaks louder: the beautiful words on our lips, or the thousands of dead in our wake?

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I was Published!

I was Published!

The blog Madrid No Frills is an institution among the city’s anglophone community. Its author, Leah Pattem, has been writing about the live of the city for many years now—starting with the titular “no frills” bars, and then branching off to cover innumerable under-reported facets of the city. Leah was recently kind enough to publish a contribution of mine, about the Panteón de Hombres Ilustres, a mausoleum of noteworthy politicians who, strangely, have been mostly forgotten. Here is the link.

Quotes & Commentery #78: Basho

Quotes & Commentery #78: Basho

It was with awe

That I beheld

Fresh leaves, green leaves

Bright in the sun

—Matsuo Basho

Last year, during the early months of the pandemic, I took up writing these little essays once again. But it was not exactly in good faith—that is, I did not do it in the original spirit of the Quotes & Commentary, as an exploration of my own beliefs. Instead, as has happened to me before, the essays became a vessel to comment upon current affairs, which of course meant the COVID-19 pandemic. I had an awful lot to say about things I know very little about. So now, for a change, I will focus my attention closer to home.

As it happens, I am as close to home as it is possible to be right now, since I am visiting Sleepy Hollow for the summer. There are, of course, a million things I enjoy about being here. Family, friends, and food handily win gold, silver, and bronze, respectively. But over the years, I have come to realize how much I long for the natural environment of my native place—the climate, flora, and fauna of the Hudson Valley. 

Madrid has its beauties, especially in the mountains. Indeed, the Hudson Valley is, by comparison, flat and undramatic. The atmosphere, too, is rather cloudy and thick here compared with the crystalline clarity of Spain. Even if you do find a sufficiently high place, the view can be obscured by the humidity.

But what my hometown has in abundance are fresh leaves, green leaves. It is just so verdant here that, compared with arid Castille, it can seem like a tropical rainforest. Trees—many over one hundred feet tall—cover the landscape, some of them in turn covered with climbing vines. In Madrid, if you want to visit anything remotely approximating this, you have to make a reservation weeks in advance and then drive to the Hayedo de Montejo de la Sierra, a beech forest occupying a microclimate in a mountain valley, where you will be given an hour-long guided tour. It’s just not the same.

Here, by contrast, I have Rockefeller State Park right behind my house. I can go anytime I want, for as long as I want; and that means every day I can. Walking, hiking, or running is obviously good for your body. Research has shown that spending time in nature has positive psychological effects, too. Indeed, “forest bathing”—a kind of tree-based therapy—became something of a fad in Spain a few months ago. It is taken seriously in Japan and Korea. I have no idea whether a walk in the woods can help with severe depression, anxiety, or trauma. But I am quite sure that it can put you in a better mood, help calm you down, or make you think more clearly.

Part of it, I think, is the sensory richness of natural environments. A forest is visually more complicated than most urban landscapes. It is not organized using perfectly straight lines (something seldom found in nature), in neat and orderly rows. Living things are shaped by natural selection, while the land itself is shaped by the geological processes, neither of which result in anything like a suburb or a cityscape. Nevertheless, it is not random or chaotic. Rather, natural landscapes are organized more subtly, on scales of time and distance that are not necessarily perceptible by us.

Forests are also rich in every other sensation, too, though admittedly I don’t spend much time touching and tasting. Perhaps I should. There are wild blackberries and blueberries in this area. But there is also poison ivy and ticks carrying lyme disease, so I tend to stay on the gravel paths. Still, my nose keeps quite active, drawing in all the various fragrances—cut grass, sheep dung, flowers, compost, and most of all fresh air, untainted (for the most part) with exhaust. And I am not inclined to take air for granted these days, since a couple of weeks ago the smoke from a massive fire in Oregon drifted over and turned everything grey, rendering the air harsh and unwholesome. I had a cough for weeks.

Yet it is the sounds that I cherish second only to the sights. The forest is sonically active, especially in summer. Cicadas scream from the treetops, while crickets sing from the undergrowth, and birds of all variety are calling all around. Just today I was lucky enough to see a hawk on a nearby branch, uttering its piercing cry. Madrid, by comparison, is as quiet as a church. The sensation of being surrounded by this chorus is intensely soothing. It is like being submerged in a cool bath. Matsuo Basho appreciated this, too:

In the utter silence

Of a temple,

A cicada’s voice alone

Penetrates the rocks.

Review: The Omnivore’s Dilemma

Review: The Omnivore’s Dilemma

The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I feel compelled to give this book top marks, not because it I loved every second of it, and not because I agreed with every one of Pollan’s many opinions, but simply because I cannot imagine a better book about food. For a book dedicated to such a seemingly banal subject as what to eat for dinner, The Omnivore’s Dilemma is remarkably ambitious—so ambitious, in fact, that I am inclined to view my dinner with even more reverence than I customarily do.

The titular dilemma refers to the difficulty omnivores have in choosing what to eat. A panda or a koala does not have to spare a moment’s thought in deciding that question. But for a human, capable of eating everything from fried beetles to foie gras, this choice can be dizzyingly open-ended. Traditionally, culture has cut through this infinitude of options by prescribing a typical diet. But in the United States—a place nearly bereft of culture—we have come to rely on government regulation, food science, and big industry to take the place of these traditional prescriptions. The problem, as our waistlines reveal, is that these make poor substitutes.

So Michael Pollan sets out to investigate the American diet, using four meals as focal points. The first is an order from McDonalds, which represents industrial food. Unsurprisingly, it is a depressing picture. Farmers grow acres upon acres of genetically modified corn, which is itself not fit for eating, but meant to be processed into any number of food products. Much of this corn (along with soybeans) is also fed to cattle, who are not really evolved to eat the stuff, but are fed it anyway because the corn makes them fatter, faster. One of the more memorable scenes of the book is Pollan’s visit to a CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation)—which is equal parts horrifying and disgusting.

The next meal is a dinner cooked with ingredients from Whole Foods, which represents industrial organic. Pollan takes the reader through the history of the organic movement, revealing how the designation “organic” has come to be defined by bureaucrats in ways that are not necessarily meaningful. The truth, he concludes, is that many of these products are only marginally better than their non-organic industrial counterparts. After that, we get to the centerpiece of the book: Pollan’s portrait of Polyface Farm, run by Joel Salatin. Salatin uses what you might call deliberately old-fashioned, small-scale techniques to create an ultra-sustainable farm—where cows, chickens, and pigs are used to graze, clean, and fertilize the soil. He sells his products directly to customers.

The final meal (after Pollan eats a chicken from Polyface) is one that he grows, gathers, or hunts himself. He shoots a wild pig, “hunts” some wild mushrooms, and gathers some vegetables from his garden to create what, for him, is the perfect meal. But why “perfect”? Because, Pollan says, this is the only meal he has ever had in which he knew exactly where everything came from, and what it took to get it to his table. In contrast to the meal from McDonalds, in other words—which is made out of who-knows-what from who-knows-where—the food is entirely transparent. This is Pollan’s ideal.

In the end, then, Pollan is advocating that we eat very much how Joel Salatin wants us to: old-fashioned, and small-scale. Perhaps it would be quickest to describe him as a modern-day Rousseauian—someone who thinks that the natural is always preferable to the artificial. He argues, for example, that scientists have not truly discovered what makes soil fertile or food nutritious, so traditional practices are possibly better guides. He thinks we should eat what we can get locally, and in-season, so that we can feel a connection to the land and understand where the food came from. He is, in a word, an anti-industrialist.

Now, that is quite an unfairly simplistic summary of Pollan’s positions. Even so, I cannot help but suspect that he is advocating something unworkable. I simply do not think that we could feed the world using farming practices like those in Polyface. And how could everyone in a major city eat locally? This is not to say that we cannot create more sustainable farms or attempt to reduce food transportation. But I don’t see this as a grand solution. Admittedly, Pollan was writing when the issue of global warming was not as omnipresent an issue as it is today. He has an entire chapter on the morality of meat-eating, for example, without mentioning what has become the primary reason for reducing meat consumption: greenhouse gas emissions.

It would be unfair to end this review without mentioning Pollans many virtues. For one, he is a great writer, able to both paint a scene and explain a concept with style. He is also intellectually broad. During the course of this book, he weaves a story together that includes chemistry, biology, government policy, history, philosophy, anthropology, and of course gastronomy. And he is thorough. He visits an industrial cornfield, buys a cow in a CAFO, spends a week at Polyface Farm, and learns to fire a rifle and identify wild mushrooms. I very much appreciated these eyewitness reports, as I often feel myself quite disconnected from my own personal food-chain.

In sum, if you want to think more deeply than ever before about what to have for dinner—so deeply that you accidentally start pondering the whole cosmos—then I can heartily recommend this book.

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Review: For Whom the Bell Tolls

Review: For Whom the Bell Tolls

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There are many who do not know they are fascists but will find out when the time comes.

Along with millions of Americans, I was assigned to read The Sun Also Rises in high school English class. And along with (I presume) a good percentage of those millions, I did not finish reading it in time for the exam. But I do remember the teacher explaining that, for Hemingway, “the most important thing is grace under pressure.” At the time it struck me as very odd that this would be so important to someone. After all, aren’t there many other important qualities for a person to have? What about intelligence, education, kindness, wit?

My professor’s remark came back to me, with full force, as I read For Whom the Bell Tolls. This is a novel about courage—not just grace under pressure, but grace in the face of mortal peril. This idea is developed almost into a full moral system, where instead of sinners and saints we have the brave and the cowardly. Everyone is measured by this metric. At first glance there is a lot to criticize in this worldview. Can’t you fight bravely for a horrible cause? Can’t you put your life on the line for something truly ugly? Indeed, the sorts of situations that Hemingway fixates on—hunting, bullfighting, war—are ethically dubious, at least in my opinion.

And yet, the more I read, the more I found myself thinking of Albert Camus, of all people. The perspective espoused in The Plague seemed, though obscurely, to be mirrored in For Whom the Bell Tolls. The characters inhabit an absurd universe, where traditional notions of good and evil have broken down, where death is unthinking and meaningless, and can come at any time. Both Robert Jordan and Dr. Bernard Rieux are fighting a battle that they are unlikely to win. But they continue to fight, mostly out of a simple sense of duty.

Of course, Hemingway’s hero is fighting other people, whereas Camus’s had to face a faceless disease. What sets Robert Jordan apart from his enemy—at least in Hemingway’s eyes—is that he kills out of necessity, in order to ultimately save others, whereas the fascists kill because they think they have a right to decide who is worthy to live. Indeed, perhaps you can even say that, for Hemingway, cowardice and fascism come from the same impulse: the denial of death—or, rather, the denial of our powerless in the face of death. Cowards run because they think they can exempt themselves from the basic condition of life. It is a form of inauthentic egotism. And fascists kill for the same reason: they think that they can decide who lives and dies, rather than accepting that who lives and dies is not really up to anyone.

The only authentic way to live, for Hemingway and for Camus, is in the direct face of death, with no illusions. This is why the bullfighter is such a central symbol for Hemingway: it is the most literal image of a man facing his own death. Thus, rather than simply a novel about a mission to destroy a bridge, this book becomes a kind of meditation on how a small band of men and women behave when they know they might have only a few days to live. In some places, Hemingway even sounds downright Buddhistic in his ecstatic embrace of the ‘now’ as the only time we ever truly have.

What is not exactly Buddhistic is the way that loves comes into the story. Love, for Hemingway, is a kind of shorthand for the sweetness of life. Or perhaps it would be better to say that love is the ultimate expression of life’s sweetness. And in an absurd universe, the joys of food, of friendship, and yes, of sex, are the only real values we have. To be truly brave, then, means fully embracing the sweetness of life, since it is only by understanding how precious life is that one can understand how much we have to lose. Likewise, one can only love authentically in the face of death, as it is life’s inevitable end that makes it so sweet.

Clearly, I have managed to read a lot into what is, in truth, a fairly straightforward war novel. Most readers will likely not find it as profound. Even without the philosophy, however, I enjoyed it quite a bit as a story of the Spanish Civil War, especially as I have spent a lot of time in the Madrid sierra myself. (As a side note, I am fairly sure that there aren’t many caves up in those mountains. At least not deep ones.)

But of course, the book isn’t perfect. The love story, for example, is lessened by Hemingway’s tendency to make his women absolutely subordinate to his men. This tendency does not extend to (in his words) “old” and “ugly” women, however, as the character of Pilar is quite compelling. As for the love story itself, I have trouble deciding whether Hemingway is touching or simply sappy. At least the tender emotions form a pleasant contrast with the harsh world of war.

An odd decision was rendering the Spanish dialogue as a kind of literal translation into English. When a character says “menos mal,” for example, it is translated (nonsensically) as “less bad,” when it really means something more like “thank goodness.” I had mixed feelings about this, since sometimes I did feel like I could hear the Spanish, but at other times it just was distracting. I particularly didn’t like his use of “you” and “thou” to convey the difference in the Spanish “usted” and “.” Thou and just have such vastly different emotional registers. Also, to be pedantic for a moment, I noticed that Hemingway would sometimes incorrectly use “thee” in his dialogue for the subject (as in, “Thee blew up a bridge”), when it is really an object pronoun (as in, “I blew thee up”).

In the end, however, this book, like all of Hemingway’s, is dominated by his distinctive style. If you enjoy that style, you will enjoy the book; and if not, not. And all the absurdist philosophy in the world won’t change that.

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Review: Contact

Review: Contact

Contact by Carl Sagan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A couple of weeks ago, on June 25, the Pentagon did something rather unusual: It released a report on Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP), a subject that has long been associated with alien spacecraft. This was the culmination of the public and political interest piqued by the 2017 release of videos, taken by the United States Navy, of strange flying objects. The content of these videos was not especially groundbreaking—indeed, like all the amateur UFO videos before them, they feature grainy blobs—but their source was. It is one thing when the neighborhood loony says they were abducted; it is another when the most powerful military on the planet admits they cannot identify something in their airspace.

Opinions will differ as to whether report is interesting or boring. Of the 144 reported sightings (quite a lot), 143 remain unexplained. The investigators conclude, tentatively, that these objects are real (i.e. not optical illusions or sensory errors, since they were picked up on many different sorts of sensors, not to mention seen by eyewitnesses), but do not rule out technological malfunction in accounting for the remarkable flight patterns recorded in some instances. Of course, no rational person could conclude that any of this constituted evidence of a visitation by aliens, or even their drones. Still, it is difficult to watch the 60 Minutes segment on the sightings, for example, without one’s curiosity getting piqued. Even Obama seems interested.

In this spirit, I picked up Carl Sagan’s Contact, a physicist’s imagined version of how first contact with an alien species would play out. The book functions on two levels: as a novel and as a thought experiment. Considering that Sagan was no novelist, it is easy to imagine Contact being quite deficient as a work of fiction. Surprisingly, however, the story pulls its own weight. Yes, there is too much exposition and not enough characterization; and yes, the style is more akin to a work of nonfiction than of fiction. But the imaginative plot pulls the reader into the story quite effectively, making the book a pleasurable read.

As a thought experiment, the book is even more compelling. From the details of the message, to its decryption, to the assembly of the machine, to the social and political ramifications of the discovery alien life, Sagan has taken great pains to imagine how his scenario might realistically play out. Unlike so much science fiction, this book does not insult the reader’s intelligence by asking her to suspend disbelief or accept bizarre premises. And as the book is set in the (then) near-future, it is also fun to compare Sagan’s predictions with how events actually turned out. We have not, for example, made as much progress with commercial space flight as he thought we would. And our space billionaires are not nearly so enlightened as Sagan anticipated.

The main theme of the book is the conflict between religion and science: faith vs. reason. I cannot say that Sagan was especially insightful here, as he takes the fairly standard view that science is superior because it is based on evidence. What is more, if I am not mistaken, this issue has lost some of its teeth within the last few years. Nowadays, American conservatives are more concerned with preventing children from learning about racism than about evolution. And as the pandemic revealed, cultural resistance to science is just as likely, if not more so, to come from secular conspiracy theories, social resentment, or political affiliation as from traditional religions.

Above all, this is an immensely optimistic book. Sagan describes all of humanity coming together when faced with intelligent alien life, leading to the triumph of the better angels of our nature. I greatly admire Sagan for this hopefulness; it is one of his best qualities. Personally, though, I doubt that a message from outer space would prompt humanity to come together in the way he describes. A common threat—in the form of a virus—was not even enough to make Republicans and Democrats work together, much less Americans and Russians. At this point, I think even unambiguous contact from an alien race could be absorbed into our polarized politics.

As a last note (and warning, spoiler ahead), though interesting, I did not exactly follow Sagan’s idea of there being a message in π. If you were searching an unlimited string of random numbers—using arithmetic in multiple bases—then is it not inevitable to find a long string of, say, 0s and 1s? And even if a particular string is improbable, how could you rule out a statistical fluke? I suppose a message of sufficient complexity and length, with significant content (say, blueprints to make a Ford Model T), would be difficult to disbelieve. But being able to arrange a circle using 1s and 0s in base-11 arithmetic does not strike me as a clincher.

This is just a quibble. On the whole, I greatly enjoyed this book. Like Sagan’s series, Cosmos, Contact left me full of hope for the human future, and full of wonder for the universe. He was a treasure of a man.
Sagan imagines billionaires living in luxurious space hotels, or chateaus. But as I learned from a recent story in the news, even now, astronauts in space do not even clean their clothes. They wear them until the stink becomes unbearable, and then throw them away. So it is not exactly opulence above the clouds.

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Talking to a Therapist

Talking to a Therapist

Matt Valdespino is—along with his twin, Greg—one of my oldest and best friends. When I first met the two of them, I honestly could not tell them apart. I spent years mixing up their names. But as time went by, they diverged in fascinating ways.

The brothers share the admirabe ability to mix seriousness and humor—loving to laugh without trivializing the important things. But whereas Greg’s serious side was channeled into his passion for learning, Matt has always been pulled between art and activism. His urge to help others eventually won out, and culminated in his decision to become a professional therapist. This is his story:

ROY: What is your educational background? What did you study, where, and why?

MATT: I went to the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, and I studied Political Science, with a concentration in Political Theory. My minor was in Modern Middle East Studies. The reason? I guess I’ve always wondered this myself, since I’ve strayed so far from that, personally and professionally. But I guess the reason is that it was the Obama years, working in politics as a liberal progressive was a valued and exciting thing. It felt like being young and politically active was really in vogue, and also really useful. So I got really caught up in that. My older brother studied political science, too, and I look up to him as an example of what a good person does.

And we talked a lot about politics in my family growing up. I definitely loved the horse race elements of it—following legislation, following campaigns, who’s up, who’s down. It was like a game but it had stakes and a moral punch to it. And the Middle East stuff, it’s because it was the post 9/11 era, and I wanted to help people in the Middle East and Americans come together—you know, the whole idyllic, Obama-era, get everyone holding hands. That was the vision I had in my head.

R: After graduating, didn’t you work on a farm?

M: Yes, yeah, I did end up working on a farm. Because all of that political stuff—despite the idealism and the interest, the more I got into it the more I realized that I didn’t like politics as a process. And even policy was really complicated and hard for me to follow. It’s so intensely convoluted and everyone says it’s all wrong, anyway. I just couldn’t make heads or tails of it.

The only thing I really could understand and feel connected to was political theory—like Locke, Hobbes, Machiavelli. Like that vague stuff. The stuff that was really not about doing anything in politics, I loved that. And slowly I realized that that wasn’t what politics was going to look like. If I worked in politics, nobody was ever going to ask me what I thought about Leviathan. Nobody was going to give a shit about any of that. So I said, ok well then I don’t give a shit about you, and I’m going to farming.

R: Tell me about that experience.

M: So I graduated from college, and I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. I had been working in political internships that I thought was just selling snake-oil, selling “change” but just really fund-raising to keep our jobs. Or trying to scare-monger people to fight against the other scare-mongers. It felt fake to me. And I was reading political theory, which also felt fake, even though I liked it. So I thought, “Let me do something that’s undeniably real. Let me pick fruit for a year.”

So I ended up in Washington State. I did WWOOF (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms), so they just put you on an organic farm. And you work for your room and board. And the owner of the farm also had a farm down in Chile, so they flew me down there for the spring harvest (or their fall).

R: After that I understand you got into stand-up. What attracted you to that?

M: I’ve always liked stand-up. I remember the day I got Comedy Central in my house. It was a ground-breaking moment in my life. Like, oh my God, a network that’s always funny! I just loved that. And I’ve always considered myself to be funny and enjoyed making people laugh. I feel comfortable doing that. But while I was farming, I was listening to all these podcasts, especially WTF with Marc Maron where he interviews comedians. And they were all so emotionally screwed up. But they had found a way of talking about it through comedy.

And also it was a way that I could talk about the big things, personally and globally, without being so condescending. I could just provide my impressions of them in a way that was sort of digestible to people. It was a way that I could talk about intense things without it being hard for people to understand. And without having the accountability of making a flawless argument. I could just say what I felt without backing it up with a full five paragraph essay.

R: Is five paragraphs a lot?

M: Yeah, in grad school we don’t write. Five paragraphs? I can’t even think of it!

R: So what do you think is the most challenging part of being a comedian?

M: The whole idea of stand-up is that you’re funny in your real life with friends, so just translate that to stage. So the problem is that, the reason you can be funny with your friends in real life is that they have all this context—of your relationship, shared experiences, and all of these conscious and unconscious parameters around who you are. And this allows you to subvert those expectations, or touch on these older identities, yadda yadda yadda. But in stand-up (unless you’re really famous) the audience doesn’t really know you. So then you need to take what you think is funny and translate it so a stranger thinks it’s funny. Then the challenge, for me, was finding an impression of me and my sense of self that other people can understand and connect with.

R: Meanwhile, you were working as a social worker. Is that right?

M: Yeah.

R: How did you get into that? And what did that entail?

M: So I moved to Washington, and I moved in with my uncle, who’s a therapist. And I love him. He’s really funny, really goofy. And we had all these conversations about what it means to be emotionally vulnerable and emotionally open. And he was telling me what it’s like to be a therapist. So I kind of got fascinated with the idea of just helping people. I think there’s a big part of me—going back to political science—that feels like I need to be helping people. That’s a moral obligation. But I lost that because politics became so vague, abstract, and argumentative. So my uncle showed me a way of helping people where it was direct. And it was kind of fascinating. You get to learn about people, find out who they are, explore them. I applied to a bunch of helping jobs—a nurse, a hospice worker—and the social worker is the one that got back to me.

I got a job as a social worker at a psychiatric center—so people with severe mental illness voluntarily come there. The umbrella term would be a “day center,” where people with mental illness come to spend the day, to help structure their lives.

R: You were doing this, and you were doing comedy. But at some point you decided to become a therapist.

M: Yeah.

R: What, exactly, are you studying now?

M: Clinical psychology. I still really don’t have a concentration, I’m just getting the lay of the land. It’s a Psy.D at Rutgers University. As opposed to a Ph.D, a Psy.D is really for practicing therapists, not researchers.

R: What made you make that decision, that you wanted to be a clinical psychologist?

M: It was a pretty gradual process. For one thing, stand-up is really hard. It’s a very exhausting pursuit. I fell less in love with it over time. It became harder and harder to enjoy it, to create new jokes, and to feel that I was getting better—which was pretty hard for me. I also felt that I was becoming phony, like a character or a persona. And instead of my stage presence becoming more like who I was off stage, the opposite happened. I got scared that it was infecting my whole life, that my life was becoming this kind of performance. It was creepy. Like I don’t know where stage ends and life stops.

And the social work stuff. A lot of it was great and moving. But a lot of it was really, really boring. There’s so much of social work that is just so monotonous. I was just spending the day with people. And a lot of it is just sitting at a computer typing with somebody. But there are moments when people get really, insanely honest with you—just wildly honest—and I liked those moments. That’s what I appreciated. And everything in comedy just felt so performative by comparison.

R: You’ve done some practice clinical work?

M: Yeah.

R: What do you think is the hardest part of being a therapist?

M: There are two things I find hardest. One hard part is just caring enough. I definitely struggle sometimes with, “Uh, ok, lemme just get through this session.” Thinking that somebody is making a problem bigger than it has to be… Basically, people aren’t always the most pleasant in therapy. They’re their absolute worst. And that’s good, they should be. But I can sometimes get annoyed with people.

And the other difficult thing is not jumping to conclusions. A therapist is like an emotional scientist, in that you’re always looking for more information. Your conclusion is the very last thing. Mainly you’re just trying to get more emotion out there, as much as possible in the moment. And that’s hard, because you want to be brilliant, you want to blow someone’s mind like “I got it! You yell at your boss because you hate your dad.” But I think there’s so much more value in just being curious.

R: Then what would you say is the most rewarding part of therapy.

M: Getting somebody to say something that they’ve never said before.

R: Can you elaborate?

M: Absolutely not.

R: What?!

M: Alright, I mean getting somebody to an emotional place that they have been afraid of, or were struggling with verbalizing, or didn’t even know was there. I think that’s the most rewarding thing for me. So they can experience and express a different part of themselves.

R: Is there anything you want to add?

M: Yeah, there is. Therapy is a very weird idea. It’s still relatively new, even though it’s becoming more accepted to go to therapy (and also more accessible). But I think people still go to therapists and don’t really know what they’re doing. And that can be fine. That can be totally fine. But I think one thing people should do when they go to a therapist is to be more comfortable asking the therapists what’s going on, asking for help with a certain thing, and telling the therapist “This is what I need.” I think people should feel more empowered to push back against therapists.

Because I think people get stuck in therapy, and it becomes this passive process that they’re not participating in, it’s just happening to them. But you can own the therapy process.

Review: A Splendid Exchange

Review: A Splendid Exchange

A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World from Prehistory to Today by William J. Bernstein

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Five or six years ago, a Christmas mix-up resulted in my brother receiving two copies of this book. Not knowing what to do with one, he simply gave it to me. In so doing, however, he disobeyed Adam Smith’s doctrine that humanity has a natural instinct to truck and barter. Clearly, a rational animal would have used it to exchange for something he himself lacked, like cinnamon or frankincense or some textiles. What a wasted opportunity.

This book is part history of, and part homage to, trade. Four hundred pages is not nearly enough space to give such an expansive topic exhaustive coverage. But Bernstein does manage to pack quite a lot of interesting tidbits into his narrative. What most struck me was how central trade has been to human history. It has caused wars of invasion, spurred on colonialism, motivated the great journeys of “discovery,” helped to spread epidemic diseases, and stimulated newer forms of economic organization. In short, the urge to turn a profit has helped to join together every corner of the world—leading to many wonderful things and quite a few atrocities, too.

After reviewing this thrilling history, Bernstein ends by examining the old conflict between free trade and protectionism—or, more concretely, low tariffs or high tariffs. It is an interesting question. Low tariffs provide a small but tangible benefit to the general populace in the form of cheaper goods; but they do so at the expense of workers displaced by competition from abroad (and vice versa with high tariffs). So what is more important, knocking off a few cents from something bought by millions or allowing a few thousand people to keep their job? The traditional answer is that the government should keep tariffs low, and “bribe” those displaced with additional support in the form of welfare and job retraining. But in practice most workers are left to fend for themselves, which can eventually create political instability if resentment grows too widespread.

Another question has to do with the development of an economy. High tariffs can be used to shield domestic industries from foreign competition, allowing them to grow to the point that they can effectively compete. But high tariffs can also preserve inefficient companies and obsolete technologies, putting a country at a long-term disadvantage. Orthodox economic logic always favors free trade, but the evidence is mixed. According to Bernstein, several studies actually found a positive correlation between high tariffs and economic growth in the 19th century. Still, Bernstein comes down in favor of free trade, not because it offers an economic miracle (he says its benefits are overstated), but because it helps to foster bonds between potential enemies. But, if you ask me, when a nation is dependent on another (and potentially weaker) country for its resources, this can easily become a powerful source of conflict.

Now, if you don’t mind, I am going to disobey Adam Smith myself and donate this book to a library.

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An Emigrant’s Story

An Emigrant’s Story

(The original interview in Spanish.)

I met Antonio after moving into my current apartment. There was no doorman in my previous place, much less such a pleasant and helpful one. Little by little I got to know him, and his life started to interest me more and more. Finally, I decided that I had to interview him, and I’m glad I did.

R: Can you tell me a little about yourself?

A: My name is Antonio Bande. I was born in Venezuela. My parents are from Galicia, Spain. They were born in the province of Ourense. I was born in Maracay. Maracay belongs to the state of Aragua. Aragua is one of the central states, because it is near the capital, Caracas. Maracay is the capital of Aragua, where I was born. Maracay is located exactly 105 km from Caracas. It is a coastal region, with lots of beaches, and you can also find many open plains in the countryside.

R: What did your parents do for a living?

A: My parents set up a business in Venezuela. My father left Spain first, and then my mother. My father left in the year 1958. This was the postwar era in Spain, and Spain was very depressed, so he went to look for a future. Of my four siblings, the oldest was born here (in Spain), and the rest of us in Venezuela.

R: So you have three siblings?

A: More, really, because my dad got married again. So we are really eight siblings in all. My parents got into sales, and they set up a business. In the beginning, clothes, but later it grew, and it ended up being what you would call here a chain of stores. For a long time, as an adult— once I had finished my studies— I was working in this chain, until my father decided to sell it. He was thinking of retiring. From then on, I began to specialize in administration. And I became an insurance broker. Before leaving Venezuela, in the last 27 years, that was my job, an insurance broker, in my own office. And I trained, in fact, with an American company. It was the owner of the company Seguro Venezuela, the American Insurance Group (AIG). I trained with them.

R: What year did you move here for good?

A: Three years ago, in 2018

R: I know there’s a crisis in Venezuela, and it’s not going well. But what, in particular, made you decide to move to Spain?

A: When your life is worth the price of a pair of shoes, or the price of a watch, or the price of a phone, then you have to make some decisions. Because the price of life is something intangible, it can’t be determined or quantified. With the rising crime rate, and a complicite government, well, you have to make decisions. So, in the first place, the factor of crime is fundamental. The factor of impunity (that crimes are not prosecuted). I’m talking about insecurity, I’m talking about impunity, and I’m saying that this impunity is rooted precisely in judicial insecurity. Because, what happens? In the state, as a corrupt state, they have made it so that all the powers—that is, the executive, the legislative, the judicial—all the powers are in the hands of the state, including electoral power. So, if you’re in Venezuela it’s not reasonable to think that they’re going to respect your vote. No, no they won’t respect it. But this is not something recent, this has been happening for the last twenty years at least. And it keeps getting worse.

R: I read something about inflation.

A: Hyperinflation. I’m going to tell you something very simple. Up until this month of May, which is about to end, Venezuela has accumulated 1500% of inflation. We’re talking about this cycle, this year. There is no honorable work, there is no honest work, that you can do to support yourself. There’s none. And I’m telling you that back in Venezuela I was a part of the upper-middle class. I had three apartments. I only sold two cars to come here. I had the good fortune to be able to come, and come with my family, with my wife, my youngest children and our dog. But many people arrive alone.

R: So, if you’re earning 1,000 euros a month…

A: Do you know what the minimum wage is for a person in Venezuela? Three euros a month. And those fortunate enough to earn ten times that, earn thirty euros a month. But you can live on that in Venezuela. Because nowadays, Venezuela is an economy that is completely “dollarized.” The bolívar (the national currency) no longer circulates because the necessary amount doesn’t exist to sustain the exchange, dollar-bolívar. If you have 100 dollares, that would be many millions of bolívares. So all transactions are done with dollars. Where do people get dollars? More than 70% of the population receive support from those who have left the country.

R: Is your family here with you?

A: Here I have one daughter by blood, and two stepchildren. In Venezuela I have two more children, and another daughter who lives in Delaware.

R: Do you miss Venezuela?

A: What happens is that… yes, I miss it. But I miss it, knowing that what I’m missing doesn’t exist anymore. The country has changed completely. And it is the quality of being Venezuelan. The gentility, the humanity, of the Venezuelans. And of course I really, really miss the homeland. Because Venezuela is a country where you can go to the beach twelve months a year. It has an enviable climate. It has places with beach weather twelve months a year, places with snow twelve months a year, and even places that are deserts twelve months a year. Truly, it has a range of climates that is something to miss. And, man, the country is beautiful. What’s bad are its politics. It has dreadful politics, and that has totally ruined the country.

R: What surprised you the most about Spain?

A: What surprised me the most was not something very favorable. It’s the difficulty of working, of finding work. In general, in Spain it’s very hard to find work. And this is surprising when you’re a person used to working every day. For someone like me, who wants to manage his own life, you feel a little useless. I never thought of being a superintendent of a building. And I’m not denigrating, or saying that I’m doing something embarrassing, no. I have a job like any other, a job I like doing, not only for necessity but also because I feel comfortable. In Spain, they want young people with lots of training and lots of experience. I don’t understand that. I don’t understand how you can have a lot of experience, being so young.

R: Is there something you like about your life here?

A: There are lots of things in Spain I like. The first is that I have a part of my family here. Not only those who came with me from Venezuela, but also those who were already living here. In Madrid, in Galicia, in Valladolid, for example, or in Bilbao. I like the food and drinks. I have it in my blood because, when I was young, I ate from my grandmother’s hand, who was Spanish. First from my maternal grandmother, who died, and then from my paternal grandmother. Man, Mediterranean food… 

R: Do you like Spanish food more than Venezuelan food?

A: Every cuisine has its pleasure. The good thing about being here, is that here you can eat Spanish food and Venezuelan food, because in Venezuela you have trouble eating even Venezuelan food, since everything is scarce. You eat whatever there is. Do you know the terrible ordeal a Venezuelan has to go through to get a loaf of bread? At six in the morning, you have to be in the doorway of the bakery. Standing in line. There are 150 or 200 people, because those are the 150 or 200 loaves of bread they’re going to make that day. You can buy one loaf of bread, maybe two. And they give you the receipt, and you leave. Then you come back after 2:30 in the evening to pick up the bread.

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La historia de un emigrante

La historia de un emigrante

(La entrevista traducida al inglés.)

Conocí a Antonio poco después de mudarme a mi piso actual. No había un portero en mi último piso, mucho menos un portero tan agradable y atento como él. Poco a poco lo fui conociendo, y su vida me interesaba más y más. Al final, decidí que le tenía que entrevistar, y estoy muy feliz con la decisión.

R: ¿Me puedes decir tus datos básicos?

A: Me llamo Antonio Bande. Nací en Venezuela. Mis padres son gallegos. Nacieron en la provincia de Ourense. Nací en Maracay. Maracay corresponde al estado de Aragua. El estado de Aragua es uno de los estados centrales, porque está alrededor de la capital, Caracas. Maracay es la capital de Aragua, donde yo nací. Maracay se encuentra exactamente a 105 km de Caracas. Es un estado de costa, con playa, y es un estado con llanuras, las zonas de campo.

R: ¿A qué se dedicaron tus padres?

A: Mis padres establecieron un comercio en Venezuela. Mi padre se fue de España primero, luego se fue mi madre. Mi padre se fue en el año 1958. Era la época posguerra de España, y España estaba muy deprimida, y se fue buscando un porvenir. De los cuatro hermanos míos, el mayor nació aquí (en España), y nosotros tres en Venezuela.

R: Entonces, ¿tienes tres hermanos?

A: Más, realmente más, porque mi padre se casó otra vez. Entonces somos ocho hermanos. Mi padres allí se dedicaron al comercio, establecieron un negocio. En principio, de ropa, pero después se fue proliferando, y se acabó convirtiendo en algo que se llama aquí una cadena de tiendas. Por mucho tiempo, ya siendo yo adulto — una vez que culminé los estudios — estuve trabajando en este grupo de tiendas, hasta que mi padre optó por venderlas. Porque estaba pensando en su retiro. A partir de allí, yo empecé en una especialización de administración. Y me hice agente corredor de seguros. Antes de irme de Venezuela, en los últimos 27 años, trabajé así, de agente corredor de seguros, en una oficina propia. Yo me formé, de hecho, con una empresa americana. Eran los propietarios de la empresa, Seguro Venezuela, de American Insurance Group (AIG). Yo me formé con ellos. 

R: ¿En qué año viniste aquí a vivir?

A: Hace tres años, en el año 2018.

R: Sé que hay una crisis en Venezuela, y va muy mal. Pero, en concreto, ¿qué te hizo decidir irte por España?

A: Cuando tu vida vale lo que vale un par de zapatos, o lo que vale un reloj, o lo que vale un móvil, pues tú tienes que tomar muchas decisiones. Porque el valor de la vida es algo intangible, no se determina, no se cuantifica. Con el nivel de la delincuencia que se ha exacerbado, y con un gobierno tan cómplice, pues, hombre, tú tienes que tomar decisiones. Entonces, en primer lugar, el factor de la delincuencia es fundamental. El factor de la impunidad (no se juzgan los delitos). Te hablo de la inseguridad, te hablo de la impunidad, y te hablo que esta impunidad tiene su base precisamente en la inseguridad jurídica. Porque, ¿qué pasa? El estado, como un estado villano, se ha hecho de todo de que son los poderes — o sea el ejecutivo, el legislativo, el judicial — todos los poderes están en las manos del estado, incluso el poder electoral. Entonces, si estás en Venezuela no es sensato pensar que se va a respetar tu voto. Pues no, no se va a respetar. Pero esto no está pasando ahorita, esto ya viene pasando desde hace cerca de veinte años por lo menos. Y viene cada vez peor.

R: He leído algo sobre la inflación.

A: La hiperinflación. Te voy a decir algo muy simple. Hasta este mes de mayo, que está a punto de terminar, Venezuela lleva acumulado 1.500% de inflación. Estamos hablando de este ciclo, menos de un año. No hay un trabajo honrado, no hay un trabajo honesto, en el que tú puedes trabajar para cubrirte y costearte. No hay. Y te estoy hablando de que en Venezuela yo era parte de la clase media alta. Tenía tres apartamentos. Solamente vendí dos coches para venirme. Yo tuve la fortuna de poder venirme, y venirme con mi familia, con mi mujer, los dos hijos pequeños y el perro. Pero mucha gente se viene sola.

R: Entonces, si alguien gana unos 1000 euros al mes…

A: ¿Sabes cuánto es el ingreso básico de una persona? 3 euros, mensuales. Y los que tienen la fortuna de ganar 10 veces de esto, ganan 30 euros mensuales. Pero con eso no se vive en Venezuela. Porque hoy en día, Venezuela es una economía totalmente dolarizada. El bolívar ya no circula porque no hay la cantidad circulante necesaria para soportar el cambio, dolar-bolívar. Si tienes 100 dólares, esto sería muchísimos millones de bolívares. Entonces todas las transacciones se hacen en dólares. ¿De dónde saca la gente dólares? Más de 70% de la población recibe remesas de los que estamos fuera. 

R: ¿Tienes tu familia aquí contigo?

A: Aquí tengo una hija consanguínea, y dos de mi mujer. En Venezuela tengo dos hijos más, y otra hija que vive en Delaware.

R: ¿Echas de menos Venezuela?

A: Lo que pasa es que, sí lo echo de menos. Pero lo echo de menos, teniendo la conciencia de que lo que tú estás echando de menos ya no existe en el país. El país se ha deformado totalmente, la calidez, el gentilicio, la humanidad, del venezolano, se a perdido. Y por supuesto echo muchísimo de menos, a la patria. Porque Venezuela es un país de riquezas naturales, donde se puede ir a la playa los doce meses del año. Tiene un clima envidiable. Tiene desde sitios de playa los doce meses del año, hasta sitios con nieve los doce meses del año, hasta sitios desérticos los doce meses del año. De verdad, tiene una diversidad del clima que es algo de echar de menos. Y, hombre, el país es hermoso. Lo malo es la política que tiene. Tiene una política pésima, y se ha cargado una nación completa. 

R: ¿Qué te sorprendió más de la vida en España?

A: Lo que me sorprendió más no es muy favorable. Es la dificultad de trabajar, de encontrar trabajo. En general en España la posibilidad de encontrar trabajo es muy difícil. Y eso, pues, sorprende cuando eres una persona habituada a trabajar todos los días. Para alguien como yo, quien quiere gestionar su propia vida, se siente un poco inútil. Yo nunca pensé en ser un conserje en una comunidad. Y no estoy denigrando, ni diciendo que estoy haciendo algo penoso, no. Tengo un trabajo como cualquier otro, un trabajo que hago agusto, no únicamente por la necesidad sino porque me siento agusto. En España, te piden poca edad, mucha formación y mucha experiencia. No entiendo esto. No entiendo cómo tú puedes tener mucha experiencia, siendo una persona muy joven. 

R: ¿Hay algo que te gusta de la vida aquí?

A: Hay muchas cosas en España que me gustan. Lo primero es que tengo una parte de mi familia aquí. No solamente los que vinieron conmigo de Venezuela, sino los que ya vivían aquí. En Madrid, en Galicia, en Valladolid, por ejemplo, o en Bilbao. Me gustan la comida y la bebida. Lo llevo en la sangre porque de pequeño yo comí de mano a mi abuela que era española. Primero de mi abuela materna, que murió, luego de mi abuela paterna. Hombre, la comida Mediterránea… 

R: ¿Te gusta la comida española más que la comida venezolana?

A: Toda la comida tiene su gusto. Lo bueno de estar aquí, es que aquí se puede comer comida española y comida venezolana, porque allí en Venezuela es difícil comer comida venezolana por la escasez de todo. Comes lo que hay. ¿Tú sabes el viacrucis que hace un venezolano todos los días para comer pan? Tiene que estar a las 6 de la mañana, en el portal de la panadería. Haciendo una fila. Estár de 150 o 200 en la fila, porque esto son los 150 o 200 panes que el hombre va a hacer este día. Al pagar la barra de pan, se dará una, o máximo dos. te dan un tiquet, y se va. Para regresar a partir de las dos y media con el tiquet para retirar la barra de pan. 

(Cover image by Paolo Costa Baldi; licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0; taken from Wikimedia Commons.)